The argument is over a specific kind of art, and I don’t mean sculpture. The argument is over civic monuments.
Louisiana, Virginia, Maryland — in these places the elimination of Confederate monuments cannot happen soon enough. Some claim that removing them erases history. That’s backward. Erecting them does.
Take the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va. Its planned removal erupted last week into violent, white supremacist domestic terrorism. Henry Shrady, the artist, was a talented but largely self-taught sculptor. As a fitting bookend, Shrady also was the sculptor for the colossal statue of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Lee’s nemesis, that stands in front of the U.S. Capitol.
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Both are equestrian statues, the magnificent, muscular horses aggrandizing their riders through the soldiers’ partnership with — and control of — a powerful force of nature.
An equestrian statue of Ulysses S. Grant, yes; of Robert E. Lee, no.
Art aims for truth, while kitsch is the cheery aesthetic embodiment of a lie. The Lee monument is kitsch.
History is complex, but the Lee monument sanitizes the past. Lee saw himself as “Hannibal’s ghost,” in Civil War historian Michael Fellman’s incisive words — as a brilliant tactician ultimately thwarted. The grandiosity of his equestrian monument rings false as a portrait.
Like many Confederate monuments, the Charlottesville statue dates to a period after World War I when racist Jim Crow laws were being amped up in America. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, in a smart, widely praised speech in May explaining why his city removed its major Confederate monuments from their civic pedestals, minced no words: They “were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadow who was still in charge.”
It’s statuary as intimidation. Together, Shrady’s Lee monument in Virginia and his Grant monument in Washington create a false equivalence in bronze.
Likewise, that the issue is coming to a head now reflects current social stresses. President Trump launched his political career by denying the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency, mounting a five-year campaign of racist birther attacks against him.
No wonder he wants to keep Confederate monuments intact. But they need to be taken down.
Early one morning in 1992, I was suddenly awakened from a jet-lagged sleep in my Budapest hotel by an awful, clanging racket. Stumbling to the window, I peered out into the morning light to watch Hungarian workers with jackhammers going at it: A big five-pointed red star, a monument to communism, was being dismantled from the small square in front of the hotel. It was gone by the end of the day.
I later learned that the hotel had recently passed from government to private ownership. In newly post-Communist Hungary, a red-star monument out front was bad for business — or at least bad for appearances.
Plans were also underway to move monumental Communist-era sculptures to an open-air museum in Memento Park.
In the wake of the controversy over removing American monuments to the Cult of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, Memento Park is not a bad model for us to consider following — although certainly there are others. The dispute, which exploded into bloodshed, death and grinding national shame, demands hard thought.
Unlike sculpture, civic monuments are less the product of an individual artist than they are collaborations of entire societies. Civic monuments solicit a collective moral response. They invite an audience to affirm and applaud what it sees.
Confederate monuments, like their Communist bronze and granite comrades in Budapest, are kitsch. Naturalistic skill in modeling, casting and carving are only the most rudimentary signs of artistic merit. At least 700 have been identified across the country. What to do with them when they’re removed?
Confederate cemeteries are one answer. Decorating the graves of fallen soldiers on both sides of the Civil War evolved into Memorial Day, a federal holiday. The indecent monuments deserve a decent burial.
History museums are another solution. The monuments demand explanation.
History museums can provide not just the truthful context of the Civil War but of the self-satisfied civic eruption of Confederate monuments after Plessy v. Ferguson, the disastrous 1896 Supreme Court ruling that upheld “separate but equal” racial segregation. The ruling’s collapse in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education decision saw a second, this time bitter burst of Confederate monument building.
And, yes, many should just be bulldozed or melted down. They are history’s rubble.
Given events in Charlottesville, perhaps that statue of Lee deserves special handling. Make it a turning point in a story of bullying inequality that has gone on far too long. Truck Shrady’s statue 70 miles down the road to Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, where the bronze equestrian figure could be taken off its granite pedestal and displayed beside it, dethroned and defanged.
It’s sad that the site of the general’s surrender to Grant, meant to mark the end of the Civil War, needs to be called into service again. But it would be a proper resting place for the ugly history of America’s Confederate monuments.
Christopher Knight is the Los Angeles Times’ art critic.