A statue or monument can be defined as a type of societal memory. It is the carefully engineered product of an intent, a form with which we are meant to mold our memories of the past.
A permanent statue or memorial does not just appear overnight. First, someone must decide a statue is warranted, they must have valued a person or event to such an extent, that they believe the person or event must be immortalized in some way. Then, they need others to agree with them. Land for the statue must be procured, funding acquired, an artist hired. Every detail is a message. How is a person represented? Do they stand triumphantly or sit in contemplation? Do they hold a weapon or a book? How large is this figure? Where will the statue live in a community? What materials is it made out of? Abstract or life-like? All of these decisions represent an agenda. Do we feel awe? Respect? Fear? Admiration? In looking at a statue, we are receiving a message, always.
Monuments are perspectives encoded into stone. Over time though, the perspective can change. A community may re-evaluate their understanding and views of a person or event, and decide that the statue or image no longer represents their values.
It is probably not too much an exaggeration to suggest that every public installation of a monument comes with its share of controversy. After all, we all want others to understand something our way. And the fight to install monuments to events and figures we now find important is just as significant as the decision to remove an idol no longer worshipped. The recent decision to establish a National Historic Site in remembrance of the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, for example, reflects a change in values in our society. We have actively chosen to acknowledge the horrors endured by Native Americans in the face of white expansionism. By the same token, we may find memorials of the commanders who perpetrated the crimes to no longer reflect our values, and we take them down. A personal favorite example of politics defining a monument is Nikita Krushchev’s grave, purposefully designed by an abstract sculptor he publicly denigrated, and a strong indicator of how he was viewed by the public in his final days.
This is a natural societal progression. To argue that a statue contains “historic” value regardless of its politics is to completely circumvent the point of a memorial. It tells us how to remember something. And that is always the choice of the present. It is not, as some may argue, a responsibility to the past.
In all the controversy around the removal of Confederate and slavery-era statues, this is the understanding the “well-meaning” side seems to be lacking. There is no greater indicator of societal change than the desperate removal of the figures that represent a previous era. We cheered on the people of Ukraine and Poland as they tore down statues of Soviet heroes while the USSR collapsed. We watched with self-satisfaction in 2003, as Iraqi civilians began to attack the figure of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, with the US military soon arriving to finish the job.
The only difference between these events and the protestors tearing down Confederate-era statues today is the scale. To argue that the sheer act of tearing down a statue is somehow always negative is to completely ignore the entirety of history. It is simply showing that you fear change of any type, and that this fear is more important to you than standing up for a better society. These statues do not have any more “historic value” than the figures of Saddam Hussein and Stalin.
Another confusing argument I’ve seen forwarded by people timidly criticizing anti-Nazi protestors, is that tearing down statues is something the Nazis did themselves. This is, for the most part, wrong. The Nazis did far more to build monuments during their 12 years in power than destroy any. In fact, part of their genius in seizing control of the German people was the re-purposing of old symbols of German culture, such as the Brandenburg Gate. It was the Allied forces of course, who completed the majority of the destruction of Hitler’s intended monuments.
Every society must decide how they value the relics of their predecessors. A statue is not just a piece of art without context, it always carries meaning. That a statue which has existed without major controversy for generations can suddenly become as divisive as the one in Charlottesville is a sign of deep change. Remaining neutral, defending its existence as simply “historical,” is not an option.