At each major turning of the wheel of history, the symbols of the formerly powerful are destroyed. These iconoclastic urgings result in the destruction of the religious or political statues and monuments of those who subjugated others, and provide expression to the accumulated frustrations, suffering, and resentments that unequal power relationships foster.
Be it breaking off the noses of Egyptian figures, blowing up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, downing bronze statues of Lenin, or removing sculptures of Robert E. Lee, defacing, destroying, and eliminating monuments signals rejection of the past in favor of the future. This is, however, a simplistic gesture that ignores the fact that human history is often a record of upheaval.
The racist history of America, celebrated by some through the continued display of the Confederate flag and monuments erected through efforts of the Ku Klux Klan, has deservedly come full circle. White America is exploring its collective shame and responsibility for systemic racism. The murder of George Floyd at the hands and knees of police was a tipping point, unleashing a wave of iconoclasm. Symbols of the Confederacy are its target. The forces unleashed are fueling an examination of other symbols of selective history as well. Here in Sonoma, we are prompted to consider our revered monuments to the Bear Flag Revolt and General Mariano Vallejo.
Scholars and art historians are wrestling with this moment, and that is a good thing. Art is often intended to disturb emotions, and as history and context change, so too do the emotions that art disturbs; what was a source of pride sometimes becomes a source of anguish. Art requires participation by the viewer, and as cultures change, the meaning of a given work of art changes, too.
The question, then, is a matter of what to do with historical monuments to systemic racism. Should they be discarded in concert with changing times and values, or should they be preserved? This is not a simple matter. Beyond the social and political vulgarity such monuments often display lies the problem of interpretation: how to seize the opportunity to educate ourselves and others honestly.
At a museum, we’re regularly confronted with disturbing images and sculptures, but good museum curators take pains to place such works into a historical context from the perspective of the present. In this way, viewing these works becomes a teaching moment that elucidates history. This does not make the horrific less so, but helps us understand where we’ve come from, and hopefully reinforces our trajectory.
By annotating art, we can expand its meaning and educational value. Historic monuments and sculptures not in public parks provide an excellent opportunity to expand our understanding of the past, not by removing or destroying them, but by enhancing them with interpretive information that reflects today’s values, or by adding accompanying monuments that provide an alternate and valid history that the original monument ignores.
Often propagandistic and rarely art, historic monuments provide a distorted view of history and events. But even these can provide teaching moments, opportunities to come face-to-face with images of systemic racism, bigotry, cultural appropriation, sexism, and ethnic falsehoods.
Destroying symbols of our past does not erase it; only by honestly confronting the historical reality of white dominance can we hope to move beyond it. In this way, racist or propagandistic monuments can possibly become tools to liberate the present from the shackles of history.