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BlogBacks: John Ravenal & Alan Wallach (& me) on the Confederate Sculptures Fracas

I knew that my contrarian suggestions about what to do with the controversial sculptures of Confederate leaders on Richmond’s Monument Avenue would provoke some pushback, but I hoped for the constructive critiques that I’ve come to expect from my knowledgeable, insightful readers.

That’s exactly what I got in two thoughtful responses to Monumental Misdirection: Topple Injustices, Not Lost-Cause Statues.

As I wrote in that post, John Ravenal had given me my first look at Monument Avenue when I was on a 2010 Wall Street Journal assignment in Richmond, where he was then curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. He is now executive director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA.

Here he is, channeling Edvard Munch during my second visit to the VMFA, on another WSJ assignment:

John Ravenal with Edvard Munch’s “Self-Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed,” 1940-43, loaned by the Munch Museum, Oslo, for his 2016 VMFA show juxtaposing Munch with Jasper Johns
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

And here’s what John wrote to me today:

Thanks for your thoughts on this important issue. I like your idea of juxtaposing the Confederate generals with works by prominent African American artists, including another work by Kehinde Wiley. But I differ with you on another point.

In Richmond, the graffiti and the pulling down of Jefferson Davis, and an attempt on J.E.B. Stuart [the statue of another Confederate general] last night and the dumping into the lake of Christopher Columbus seem understandable at this time. Recontextualizing the old monuments by adding new works or new interpretive signage once seemed like reasonable alternatives but have come to feel like delaying tactics. Leaving the old in place until experts can decide on suitable replacements had its turn and nothing happened.

I’d love to be involved in re-imagining Monument Ave, but any truly responsive solution needs to come out of the local community and forefront Black Lives Matter. It’s an exciting moment in Richmond!

Alan Wallach, professor emeritus of Art and Art History, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, disputed my views more vehemently:

Alan Wallach
Photo by Phyllis Rosenzweig from a William & Mary press release

I couldn’t disagree with you more on this one. The South lost the Civil War militarily but won it ideologically. Hence all those loathsome statues of men who were in fact traitors. For black people, those statues symbolized the forces arrayed against them. Indeed, the white southerners who put up those statues meant them to intimidate.  

When a regime is overthrown, the sculptures that symbolized the regime are pulled down. George III at the time of the American Revolution. Louis XVI during the French revolution. Lenin after the fall of the wall, etc.

A democratic regime doesn’t put up statues to fallen dictators. There’s no statue of Mussolini in Italy; no statue of Hitler in Germany. We’d view an attempt to raise a statue to either one an obscenity. 

So it’s long past time that statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee et al. bit the dust. Put them in a museum or better melt them down and erect statues to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Dubois—American heroes who spent their lives working to end slavery and Jim Crow.

Even the board of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society, in a statement on its website, has abandoned its previous support for “removing the statue of Jefferson Davis and adding context to the remaining Confederate monuments.” It now “support[s] the initiatives to remove [all] the Confederate monuments from Monument Avenue.”

Another take on this situation came in a statement issued Thursday by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which called for Confederate monuments to “be removed from our public spaces…unless these monuments can in fact be used to foster recognition of the reality of our painful past and invite reconciliation for the present and the future” [emphasis added].

That was the intent of my outside-the-box proposal—to “juxtapose those on the wrong side of history with those on the right side—commissioned works by contemporary artists that show how far we have come from the dark days of the Civil War and suggest how far we’ve yet to go.”

But I endorse Ravenal’s wise caveat: “Any truly responsive solution needs to come out of the local community and forefront Black Lives Matter.” For what it’s (not?) worth, I’ve put forth an idea that the local community may not have seriously considered, which could provide a more enduring, meaningful way of asserting “Black Lives Matter” than the brief catharsis of knocking down longstanding symbols of deplorable oppression.

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