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What is the intellectual framing of the UK statues debate? Show more Show less
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In June 2020 Bristol protestors rioting against the murder of George Floyd tore down a statue of Edward Colston. Having hauled it from its plinth, they eventually abandoned the statue in the city's harbour. Hundreds of onlookers gathered to watch, viewing this as a momentous step in the fight against racism. Colston is known as the man who built Bristol. He bequeathed his enormous fortune to the city upon his death. 300 years on, the scale of his legacy is visceral in Bristol's landmarks and architecture, and the names of its schools, concert halls, streets, restaurants, pubs and cathedral. Yet, his fortune was built on slavery, leading many to argue that the statue props up institutional racism in the UK. Since Colston's toppling, activists have circulated lists of hundreds more controversial statues they say must be removed to end racial inequality. Others call this type of campaigning problematic. They view the destruction of monuments as historical whitewashing. For them, this trend is an affront to British history that does not confront the real issues at play. So, who are these groups, what do they think, and why?

"We should re-imagine what these statues stand for!" Show more Show less

There are more productive ways to treat our statues, which neither venerate evil, nor promote a vigilante culture.
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Vandalism is art

The obvious solution that stops history from being wiped out, yet highlights the wrongdoing of controversial figures, is turning them into pieces of art. The vandalism itself should be seen as a piece of performative history, in which the heroes of the past face the morality of the present.
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Context

There have already been many reimaginings of the toppled statues created by artists, politicians, and social media users. The artist Kehinde Wiley, for example, made a 27-foot bronze statue titled "Rumors of War," which depicted a Black man riding on top of the classic statue horse. The Rumors of War was erected in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, right next to the infamous Monument Avenue, where Confederate statues still stand.[1] Another artist, Krzysztof Wodiczko, projected images of fourteen veterans onto a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Union Square Park while broadcasting their voices and stories.[2]

The Argument

Reimagining and reframing the toppling of statues as a form of modern art is the perfect solution. For those who want to keep pieces of history alive in the form of statues, the statues can continue standing in public. For those who argue that the statues are a remnant of a racist past and must be removed immediately, art is also able to integrate their revisionist history into the public monuments.[2] For example, in Bristol, the statue of Edward Colston could be modified in some way to reflect the unjust methods with which he acquired his wealth. An artist could take inspiration from the Lincoln statue, and paint on top of Colston the faces of the African slaves that he exploited, and modify the statue to celebrate the slaves instead of the oppressor. Alternatively, the protestors could have recorded and memorialized the tearing down of the statue and present that as a powerful performance piece of the oppressed retaking and reconquering what they had lost. Another option (probably the easiest option for cities with thousands of controversial statues) would be to create a museum exhibition. The exhibition should focus on reimagining the message of the statues with oppression at its center, with placards specifically marking and introducing visitors to the egregious actions of the past. This option preserves history. Future generations will still be able to walk past and hear about Colston and be reminded of the person who contributed to the creation of their city. In fact, history will be even better preserved because a more complete version of history would be presented, one that encompasses both the good parts and the bad parts. By making vandalism less controversial and a piece of art that all can celebrate, the revision will probably be better done.

Counter arguments

Some people that are in favor of the statues believe that this doesn't actually preserve history as well. History and the monuments of people are meant to be an inherently celebratory act, not one that seeks to humiliate their legacy. Figures like Colston still deserve to be celebrated for all the good that they've done, such as contributing massively to the building of the roads, hospitals, and educational institutions that the people of Bristol still enjoy today. To keep the statue as a way to mock him is even worse than toppling his statue. It shows current and future generations that authority figures who've reshaped and improved our lives in unimaginable ways are unworthy of our respect. Additionally, focusing so much attention around statues is a waste of time because racial equality movements have much bigger issues to worry about, such as police brutality. Some people against the statues believe that there is no middle ground to the issue. In history, just like in the present, equality and racism exist in a binary; you are either one or another. Therefore, either you are worth celebrating, or you are not. To even keep the statue of Colston is to acknowledge that, in some way, he is still much more important to Bristol's history than all the figures who do not have statues and whose contributions are not remembered. We need to erase all acknowledgment of his contributions to the city because his contributions were illegitimate. The stories of the oppressed should not be vandalism and modern interferences on top of pre-existing statues.

Proponents

Premises

[P1] Vandalism as art satisfies those who want to keep the statues to commemorate the past because the statues can stay standing. [P2] Art also satisfies those who currently want to topple the statues because we can still call out the morally inexcusable actions of oppressors.

Rejecting the premises

[Rejecting P1] Vandalism as art doesn't satisfy those who want to keep history because it mocks the historical figures instead of celebrating them. [Rejecting P2] Vandalism as art doesn't satisfy those who want to topple the statues because people can still see the statues and be reminded of those historical figures' importance over them.

References

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/24/t-magazine/confederate-monuments-reimagined-racism.html
  2. https://hyperallergic.com/408996/remagining-monuments-to-make-them-resonate-locally-and-personally/
This page was last edited on Thursday, 10 Sep 2020 at 01:04 UTC