To Topple or not to Topple? … That is the question…

Contradictions lead forward. Statues and other symbolic representations need to expose contradictions, not ignore them – or worse, be made unaware of them. We need to ask questions.

220px-SaddamStatue

(by Tom Griffiths)

A few weeks ago I posted on Facebook a ‘shooting from the hip’ response, reproduced in part at the foot of this post, to the then new wave of statue toppling and attempted statue toppling occurring in the States and the UK, events that were riding the wave generated by the BLM movement and the murder of George Floyd. Not for the first time my guiding spirit in this response was Bertlot Brecht and his poem Questions From A Worker Who Reads, a poem that ‘accompanied’ me on a visit to Toronto Museum.

My gripe then, as it is now, is not so much the fate of individual statues – some ask to go, others to be daubed, scribbled upon or otherwise improved, while others ask for company to have their story told more honestly or completely. My gripe is how the story, events and processes of history remain distorted and misunderstood. And by misunderstood I not only mean in effect, through ignorance, but also through deliberate misrepresentation. This is not simply about who gets wiped from the account, but is about those not even considered important enough to be a part of the account in the first place – Brecht’s builders and masons responsible for the Chinese wall, for Babylon, the Seven Gate of Thebes …And if you are feeling bridled at women not making the account here, this too is another part of the missing story.

Churchill once wrote that history is written by the victor. Aside from the fact that he would and could say that, his individual history and his inherited history of being a ‘card carrying’ member of the British ruling class giving him what I could term bragging rights, he could also have added: and by those who rule or do the ruler’s bidding. Because ‘victor’ not only applies militarily, to interpretive cum ideological spoils of war, but more pervasively to the interpretive and ideological spoils of class warfare, the internal social dramas characteristic of all written history.

There is nothing to be gained in condemning these omissions – what’s happened has happened and the water we once poured into the wine cannot be drained off again, as Brecht once put it – but we need to understand them (to ask questions) to understand the social and economic forces that enabled, or forced, the great majority of people to be pushed off stage, or not even invited on it in anything other than the most servile and ‘meaningless’ of roles. I say ‘meaningless’ with a sense of irony because without them, without Caesar’s cook, Lima’s mason’s, the builders of the Chinese wall etc there would have been no stage for the ruling classes and associated flunkies to perform and preen themselves on in the first place. In saying this I do not intend to gloss over or deny the role or capabilities of particular individuals in history. I do suggest however that they and their achievements need to be seen in context and the context I am focussing on is the enabling, and in this sense the central role of the ignored, the hindmost.

One of the things about modernity is that it allows/enables these formerly ignored players to stick their heads above the parapet and begin to be noticed, both in terms of their emerging individuality and their contributions in all spheres of life. Do we condemn their wiping from the historical record in times past? No, we seek to understand history, the forces at play, what was possible and what needed to be fought for and achieved by future generations. Do we condemn their being ignored, downplayed or written out of recent history or of current events? Yes we do.

So, within this brief contextual framework let me first look at what we should/could do with statues that carry symbolic weight before ending by looking at a late C20th example of how history can be brought to life, enabling the complexities and emergent currents of class related struggle to be displayed in statue form, a form that not only remembers the hindmost, but honors them. And it is worth remembering here that this is not simply about the past, be that distant or recent, because in one hundred, three hundred, a thousand years hence, we will be history and the same questions will not only apply to us then, but, knowing that, apply to us now.

Let’s Topple…?

Above I suggested that some deserve and need to go and I will nominate a few to demonstrate the point. That being said it is not whether they need to go so much as the manner in which they go, a distinction I think is important.. Allow me to demonstrate the point with several examples, including one of a figure I admire. I will start with the most current and work my way back.

John Colston

From being an obscurity outside of Bristol to being catapulted to international infamy in the space of a topple and a dispatch into the river, the British 18thC slave trader’s statue is now where campaigners have long wanted it to be – gone. But not entirely gone. Retrieved from the river the statue’s destiny is now likely to lie as a museum exhibit where curators will have the opportunity of letting viewers know why and how the statue ended up before them. For inspiration on how to make this opportunity transformative they would be hard pressed to go past an exhibit I saw in Toronto Museum (see link above) of three century old native American figures in traditional garb (representatives of a bye gone and defeated past) radically transformed by the addition of a power drill, a camera and tripod and an ipod and the following caption,

We do not want to be depicted in the way we were when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now and we are going to be very important in the future.”

Let us hope the Bristol curators are up to the task; if not, another campaign beckons.

While this is probably where Colston will end up, another option exists. Following Colston’s long overdue demise a resin statue of a black protester was put in his place and then removed by local authorities. It depicted a young black protester, her clenched fist raised. See Spiked article Who Would Black Lives Matter Erect a Statue To. This figure, or something like it, represents a big improvement on both Colston and on nothing at all. But it is incomplete. The irony here – and it’s a big one – is that what is needed to complete this public square statement is Colston’s statue, toppled and at the feet of the protester. This would tell a much more compelling and accurate story and would be a far more powerful statement.

The Arab Spring and the Toppling of Tyrants

While the Arab Spring has been stalled, remaining very much unfinished business, the statues of three former dictators, two of whom, Saadam Hussein and Gadaffi had been deposed, the other, al-Assad, sadly, dying in office before he could be overthrown, were toppled. Good riddance to bad rubbish we can say. But, so far as the statues are concerned, is that all there is to it? Or, rather, should that be all there is to it? Should they just be melted down or reduced to rubble and consigned to landfill or can they, as fallen idols, be used for progressive purposes (in dialectical jargon, be turned into their opposite)? My inclination would be to use them in an ongoing, symbolic and educative way. Left where they fell (bespattered, disfigured, pissed on….) they would send two clear messages, one to other tyrants, or those so inclined – “This is what awaits you” – the other a message of hope to the oppressed or to those who may become so, and that that hope is to be realized through resistance and rebellion – “It is right to rebel”.

Lenin Falls

In May 1991, following the overthrow of Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Miriam, a large statue of Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution, was toppled with enthusiastic crowd support. Lenin is a historical figure I admire, but his revolutionary spirit and acumen has long since been ignored and his figure, actual in the case of statues, ‘expropriated’ or used to prop up fake revolutionary regimes. The statue had to go and had Lenin been around at the time he would have been urging the crowd on.

The Lincolns, the Douglas’, the Churchills, the…

The above examples belong to the obvious/easy to justify category, blatant examples of political propaganda in the service of tyranny. The Confederacy lauding statues belong in the same category – reactionary propaganda pieces erected to support the Jim Crow segregationist laws in the formerly Confederate States, after the Civil War. Politically they are low hanging fruit and if existing authorities in the UK and the US are too laggard to act they effectively invite others to act in their place. But these are not the ones that stir my interest that much precisely because of their being low hanging. It is the ire, the rage (fey or genuine) aroused by statues of Lincoln, Ulysses S Grant et al in the US, Churchill in the UK (or their equivalents anywhere) that is really interesting and which open up possibilities that Brecht’s questioning worker would have approved of.

The thing about any work of art – statues in this case – that either depicts a figure or an event, is what it intends to communicate to the observer. This includes whatever the artist or commissioning body wants to portray or whatever is portrayed in addition to (or in spite of) this. And this can become more clouded, or lost entirely, as time passes, a point not lost on Brecht’s worker. In my ‘farcebook’ post I cited a statue of Winston Churchill as an example. A heroic figure in the war against Fascism, (“… we will fight them on the beaches…we will never surrender.”) certainly. And this is the figure portrayed. The problem with this is not that this aspect is untrue, but that it is one dimensional, it does not portray anything like the “whole truth”, as former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, in relation to the Lincoln statue. It is not without reason that the coal miners of Wales and England remembered Churchill with hatred. How does history remember them, or more to the point how does history remember and portray his relationship with the miners specifically and workers generally? Varied answers can be found in libraries and online if one searches, but what about in the public square where he now stands? “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”, he wrote. And while others have written with a different bent (there has been some very good British historiography written) it is his depiction in the public square that interests me, and in that place Churchill needs the bronzed company of coal miners, of the Welsh Tonypandy ‘rioters’, of the 1926 strikers, of those who had no confidence in Churchill to ‘manage the peace’ after WW2. To treat their histories as separate is to grant Churchill the privilege of writing history and to dismiss and demean the Welsh and English workers by so doing. This is a contemporary example of workers, the ‘not the right kind of chaps’, being written out of history as this relates to the statue’s narrative.

 

The situation in the States is just as, if not more interesting, for there not only are statues valorizing the Confederacy coming down (and about time too) but the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington is now fenced off from attempts to pull it down. This statue, depicting Lincoln standing beside a former slave, kneeling and with chains broken, was dedicated in 1876 by Frederick Douglass, former slave and abolitionist. Douglass’ view of the statue was extraordinarily astute and prescient. The statue failed to expose what Douglass termed the “whole truth”,  that enslaved men and women had resisted and rebelled, enlisted and taken up arms to fight for their own freedom. A few decades down the track, as revolutions swept through Russia, and  later China, we would call this a failure to identify and focus upon the developing aspect of the contradiction. .

His solution, nearly 150 years ago, was not that the statue needed removing, but that a partially true story needed completion. Archer Alexander, the freed slave who was the model beside Lincoln, needed to be seen having finished what he’d begun, standing as Lincoln’s equal. Nor need he be alone. The depiction in the statue is a moment of synthesis and being such it heralds the opening up of new and higher levels of struggle. Former slaves and activists like Douglass and Charlotte Scott, the woman whose idea it was and whose philanthropy began the campaign for the statue in the first place, are figures who straddle both sides of the emancipatory divide and should be seen standing with Alexander. But so could others who inherited the baton they passed on. Those who immediately come to my mind include Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Rosa Parks, Mohammed Ali, Martin Luther King …. activists and fighters all. All are linked to the Emancipation Memorial and all have thrown into the ring invaluable contributions to an ongoing, emergent “whole truth”.

The “whole truth” involves a mighty big cast  many of whom are lost to us as individuals and who require symbolic representation.and I am aware that, in a numerical sense a single public square or park will have its limits with choices needing to be made no matter one’s political inclinations. But that should be a challenge that excites, not inhibits. …

Truth that aspires to the “Whole Truth”

Frederick Douglass had remarked, in his constructive criticism of the Emancipation Memorial, that no single statue could portray the “whole truth”. The sculptors, participants and supporters of Wrath of the Serfs, a series of 106 life size clay sculptures, completed in 1975, of serf life in Tibet – repression through to rebellion – were clearly reading from the same page when it came to portraying the “whole truth” through sculpture. The works were done by sculptors from the College of Fine Arts of the Central May Seventh Academy of Arts in Peking, a teacher from the Lu Hsun Art College of Shenyang and art workers of Tibet. Their ‘brief’ was to expose the evil of the old Tibetan regime and acclaim the serfs’ heroic struggle. There is a striking parallel here between this acclamation, the focus on the serf’s own role in struggling for liberation and Douglass’ astute criticism of the Liberation Memorial were the role played by slaves in their own liberation is not focussed upon and remains ambiguous (the former slave’s chains are broken, but by whom?).

The figures portrayed in Wrath of the Serfs,  are striking in their dynamism and their fidelity to lived experience. Aside from the skill level of the sculptors the main reason for this can be found in the preparation undertaken prior to the work being done. This “included more than 5,000 kilometres of travel inside Tibet for the purpose of study and investigation. The artists listened to the angy condemnation of past sufferings by a hundred liberated serfs, asked for suggestions from former poor and lower-middle peasants and herdsmen and improved their works on this basis.” There are two things we should note about this. The first is its unremarkableness – of course one would conduct research and were possible speak to those who not only represent the subject matter, but actually were the subject matter, Tibetan serfdom only being formally abolished in 1959. The second is its remarkableness, the fact that for the first time Tibetan serfs were considered important enough to be empathised with, to be listened to, to have their experiences valued and for them to be elevated to play the leading role in the drama of their former lives. Brecht’s hindmost were now the foremost.

Concluding remarks

I have gone to the bother of writing this because there is something simultaneously impressive and disturbing about the current spate of statue toppling. The concluding comments of my facebook post in late June summed this up and I will end this post with remarks I made following Brecht’s Questions From A Worker Who Reads.

So many questions indeed. Statue toppling/defacing on the one hand, and confused cum paralysed responses by authorities on the other. It’s also a reflection of serious historical ignorance, crap politics and an inability to deal with, let alone be aware of contradiction. (BTW, statues of contemporary creeps like Saddam Hussein deserved to be toppled). Churchill was right to say that history is written by the victors and Brecht more right (utterly right, actually) to draw our attention to those ignored, forgotten or deemed unworthy of attention (those he elsewhere referred to as the hindmost).

Spitting the dummy and demanding obliteration is actually the worst option, Talibanesque in fact. It not only removes or wipes clean the historical slate – and whatever else history is, it is never a clean slate – it out does the Churchillian ‘line’ by the proverbial country mile. It does this because every statue or other symbolic representation contains its opposite.

This is the truth that Brecht was getting at. Removal, wiping the slate clean, actually succeeds in doing what even the punciest, most egocentric or reactionary statue fails to do – it totally removes the unacknowledged, the exploited etc. along with the figure being revered. So a better solution needs to be found than ditching everything. I actually like the idea of – using statues as an example – bringing the hidden figures into the open in direct ‘communication’ with, for example, Churchill. The coal miners hated Churchill so their irate and critical presence would help onlookers ask questions. But he was also an important figure in the fight against Fascism and this aspect also needs open acknowledgement, not separately, but together.

Contradictions lead forward. Statues and other symbolic representations need to expose contradictions, not ignore them – or worse, be made unaware of them. We need to ask questions.

 

One thought on “To Topple or not to Topple? … That is the question…

  1. Thomas what do we do with these statues; what do we do with old TV shows/movies where racism is expressed as part of the normality of the setting? Sadly, that was the reality of those times. How long ago did Australia move on from the falsity of Terra Nullius?

    Alain Badiou put it so elegantly,so simply: one always divides into two. I’m not arguing what is the primary,what is the secondary of these statutes, other than to say tearing them down is not the only,or most appropriate answer.

    These actions are not a quantum leap from situations like the Taliban destroying statues of the Buddha’s as ‘their god’ is better. To paraphrase Uncle Joe, “both gods are equal worst”. But in the current episode of removal of statue’s, surely peoples positions should be more nuanced?

    Does it not make more sense to have new plaques put on these statues giving a more total view of their history? You cite Churchill, a vile example of English reaction, a virulent anti-communist,whose racism towards the Irish and Indians is famous, yet he provided great leadership to England in a time when they, and their dominions stood alone fighting fascism until 22/6/1941. What do you do with his memorials?

    How do we view someone like Peter Lalor, who went from being a staunch republican to a reactionary parliamentarian? Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop saved countless lives during the fight against fascism, however was happy to be knighted by the English monarchy. How best do we view him?

    When the CFMEU fights the unjust laws the parliament has devised for them one of the unions slogans is ‘we built this city’,thus the built structure of our urban environment is a testament to the legacy of these workers. Ditto with our hospitals,should they not have signage recognising the thousands of healthcare workers who have provided high quality health care for the pubic? Neither Queen Victoria, nor Prince Henry, worked in the establishments their names were once bestowed on, though thousands of health care workers delivered high quality healthcare in these settings. Should not memorials,plaques be on these sites recognising who did the work there? Are these our collective memorials?

    History is our segue to the past. Re these statues, some deserve to be in the dustbin of history, others retained though their full story explained. As you said to me on FB it is reactionary to try destroying/denying the past, as some PC warriors would like to. We need to understand what happened,how,why, the benefits to whom. I’ll close with the words of Eric Hobsbawm: ” Memory is life.It is always carried by groups of living people,and therefore it is in permanent evolution.”

    Glen!

    Like

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