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Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Sudden Awareness of Statues

I'm used to being the only person who notices statues. Usually I'll be out in a public park somewhere, generally very late at night, and while everyone else is finding places to throw up or urinate, I'll be reading plaques and saying things like, "Who the hell is John Adamson, and why should anyone care?". I still don't know, but what I do know is that nobody I've ever encountered a statue with has ever had the first clue as to who it's for, or why people pay for statues to be put up in the first place.

What this means is that, as usual, the sudden emergence of this 'hot button issue' has caught big sections of the population entirely unprepared. And it's into this gap of understanding that the usual bigots and loonies have flocked, attempting to cast (no pun) the issue as stuff it is emphatically not. From the conservative 'destruction of history' nonsense, to the progressive grievance factory's 'endorsement of crime' polemics, the issue of statues is set to become another battleground for the nation's political soul, only this time potentially without the toxic scrutiny of innocent citizens' lives which comes with the Marriage Equality 'debate'.

So why do statues go up? And how, after a snappy five thousand years of living with and participating in the practice, can we still be as confused about this as we so patently are? The conservatives are right in that the central motivation is a kind of 'public history'. Prominent or otherwise significant figures in the formation of thought or the nation, or whatever, are commemorated in more or less random locations around the city, with little plaques curtly explaining who they are and why we should care. This is indeed a form of concrete (again, no pun) collective memory. But the progressives are also correct in saying that there is an element of morality in memorialisation. The strong implication of a statue is that its subject is someone to be admired - figuratively (because literally) placed on a pedestal. But there are statues of Bligh, Boudica, Napoleon, and other far from unambiguously admirable people, erected much more because the individual in question is considered to be important, rather than actually good. 

And this is really the essence of it. By far the most salient consideration when erecting statues is significance. The nature of the medium is such that fine shades of meaning, complex modes of communication, and so on, are basically impossible. I'm not saying they're not present - the statue of Bligh, for example, is deliberately stumpy, ugly, and truculent in stance. But this kind of fine symbolism is generally lost on the vast majority of the statue-ignoring public, and creators of public monuments must be aware of this general insensibility when it comes to their works. So statues are principally designed to memorialise the 'great' as distinct from the good. And, apart from a few notable exceptions (like Confederate memorials erected at the height of the Civil Rights Movement), in a largely neutral way.

Which brings us to the issue at hand. Should statues of colonialist, racist, or otherwise morally ambiguous figures be allowed to stand? I vote that we ask the children of Syria, or Yemen, or the citizens of Venezuela, or the women of Saudi Arabia - all the people most likely to give us the sensible answer, which is, "Who really gives a toss?". But, failing that, I think it isn't too hard to figure it out for ourselves. If statues are memory and a more or less tacit acceptance of certain values, then we should probably just leave them alone. Because we are generally pretty crap at remembering our past, and as a nation we are, by and large, tacitly accepting of our racist, murderous past. So until and unless those things change, I'd suggest that our current crop of statues is actually exactly representative of who we are. Pulling them down won't erase our deep-seated moral failings. It will only render them invisible.

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