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Monumental Misdirection: Topple Injustices, Not Lost-Cause Statues (Some Juneteenth Musings)

Those who prize equality and equity have been rightly horrified and mobilized by videos of the fatal encounters between police and George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks last Friday in Atlanta. But the fierce energy behind violent, destructive expressions of rage that leave ruins in their wake should be applied to battling today’s glaring injustices, not to toppling impotent statues from bygone eras.

Much time, energy and commentary has been squandered on the defacement, removal and sometimes destruction of monuments that are empty symbols of this nation’s long-lost causes—the subjugation of Native Americans and African Americans by, respectively, foreign explorers and colonizers (most notably, Columbus), and domestic slave owners (most notably, some of the United States’ Founding Fathers). Those original sins have left behind a legacy of discrimination and recrimination that we still haven’t entirely overcome, along with monuments memorializing those who perpetrated or condoned those wrongs.

In light of news that broke late yesterday, more attention will be spent agonizing over the fate of a long-controversial tourist attraction in Richmond, VA, the former capital of the Confederacy. On June 4, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, responding to recent unrest, ordered the removal, “as soon as possible,” of the iconic statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue. He and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney also “pledged to take down the remaining Confederate statues” on that leafy thoroughfare, as reported by Holly Prestidge of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

But yesterday afternoon, as reported by the Times-Dispatch’s Justin Mattingly, “a Richmond judge extended indefinitely an injunction barring the state from removing the [Robert E. Lee] statue.” As you can see in the photo accompanying that article (at the above link in this paragraph), Lee’s pedestal is now slathered with graffiti.

While I have zero sympathy for the racial injustices that were perpetrated by the Confederacy, I’ve found myself instinctively recoiling at the sight of defaced or toppled statues that have long been landmarks in their stately surroundings, even as the values and actions of those they memorialize have been rightly condemned.

Here’s my “before” picture of the defaced statue of Lee, captured during more tranquil times:

Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In his Times-Dispatch article, Mattingly suggests that the court case regarding the Lee monument’s fate is likely to linger in litigation for some time to come (including a possible appeal)—another waste of time, energy and money that could be better spent. I have an alternate suggestion for resolving this impasse and similar conflicts, to achieve a more constructive result.

As you can see from my above photo, I’ve been to Richmond (twice on Wall Street Journal assignments—here and here). While covering the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ 2010 Rick Mather-designed expansion, I got a tour of Monument Avenue’s imposing parade of Confederate generals from John Ravenal then curator of modern and contemporary art at the VMFA (now executive director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA).

John Ravenal on a bridge in the VMFA’s 2010 Rick Mather-designed atrium
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Not a racist by any stretch of the imagination, John highlighted the equestrian procession as one of Richmond’s must-see tourist attractions, while acknowledging the controversies and pointing out the recent contrition addition—a 1996 statue of black tennis champion and Richmond native Arthur Ashe. That lightweight attempt at evenhandedness doesn’t do much to counterbalance the Confederate heavies.

Here’s what could: 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. The VMFA has already pointed the way with its 2019 permanent outdoor installation of Kehinde Wiley‘s Rumors of War, his first monumental sculpture, which features an African American on horseback in a pose based on Monument Avenue’s sculpture of Confederate general James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” Stuart:

Kehinde Wiley, “Rumors of War,” 2019, outside the VMFA
Photo: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Commissioning Wiley to confront Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, with Barack Obama seems like a no-brainer, given Wiley’s acclaimed work on the official portrait of our first black President for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery:

The 2018 unveiling ceremony for the Obama portraits with (L to R): Kim Sajet, director, National Portrait Gallery; Kehinde Wiley; Barack Obama; Michelle Obama; artist Amy Sherald; David Skorton, then secretary, Smithsonian Institution
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But before Obama could face off with Davis, they’d have to bring Davis back: Demonstrators tore down his Monument Avenue statue on June 10, after which it was promptly whisked away by police.

Contemporary works commissioned for Monument Avenue in my imagined scenario wouldn’t only be statues: Abstract works by black artists Martin Puryear and “Lynch Fragments” by Melvin Edwards immediately come to mind. And how about tapping artist Simone Leigh for a statue of Sojourner Truth?

These are the idle ramblings of a non-curator. But while I’m fantasizing, let’s engage Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch to oversee this project, calling on the talents of his museums’ curators. Ravenal, the VMFA’s former contemporary art curator, knows Richmond well and is savvy about outdoor sculpture as current director of the deCordova, so perhaps he too should play a role.

I think this would be a much more satisfying resolution than what was proposed on Tuesday by Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post: “Leave the pedestals empty,” declares the Post’s headline for its art critic’s appraisal. That would leave Monument Avenue with barren symbols of loss, rather than substantive symbols of progress.

Meanwhile, the urge to purge or vandalize offending statues remains as infectious as the coronavirus: In a counter-protest this week, the Ashe statue was defaced with a graffiti tag of “WLM” (White Lives Matter), promptly overwritten by a spray-painted “BLM.” Is this what the current state of political debate has come down to?

I can understand the cathartic value of throwing over a recently overthrown despot’s statue, as happened with a monument in Iraq to the widely despised Saddam Hussein. But the history of some of our country’s iconic but tarnished heroes, whose statues have long endured—Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, and even Robert E. Lee, for example—is more ambiguous: Reasonable people can disagree on whether they should be completely repudiated and banished, or respected and retained, despite their serious deficiencies.

Perhaps it’s time for Monument Avenue to materially embody this difficult dialectic.

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