We live in a culture of digital now-ness, twitter-surfing, trivia bingeing — which has become a culture of not-knowing history. I became acutely aware of the imbalance at the time of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last August. Suddenly, there history was — an old history of American racism and nativism — speaking to the present loud and clear.
The rally was built around a single object: an equestrian monument to the Confederate leader and Civil War hero Robert E. Lee. A small alt-right army had gathered to protest its threatened removal by the city from a public park. Probably no one had given the statue a serious glance for years. But the alt-right had, and understood its power, which lay in its twofold history. This sculpture represented the Civil War, but it was of a later date. It was made in 1924, when a brew of Lost Cause nostalgia and resurgent racist anger was saturating the South. In that context, the image of Lee was both a memorial to the past and the standard for a white supremacist future.
The Charlottesville rally was, as it was meant to be, explosive. And in the aftershock came a wave of monument-fever. In Charlottesville itself, anti-right protesters pulled down and smashed a second Confederate statue. In the same week, in Baltimore, Md., on an order from city hall, workmen hoisted four Confederate statues onto flatbed trucks and drove them off into the night.
The iconoclastic impulse spread north to New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to review a number of controversial monuments, not necessarily Civil War-related, that stood on city property. He called together a group of historians and artists together to take on the task. And this week, the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers — — led by Tom Finkelpearl, the New York City cultural affairs commissioner, and Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation — released a statement of the group’s findings.
It’s a very by-committee document; measured, all-bases-covered, weighted with consensus, short on surprise. If anything could bring a fever down, this could. It lists a set of wide-angle questions the commission applies in making judgments. If monuments have the power to write history, who, in any given case, is wielding that power? Was the history true when written, and has that truth changed over time? Does the history serve positive or negative ends? Promote inclusion or divisiveness? If monuments are, like history, intrinsically complex, not easily defined as “right” or “wrong,” is complexity alone enough to justify a contested monument’s continuing presence?
After the questions, and a group vote, come suggestions for actions the mayor can take. He can let a monument stand as is; re-contextualize it through added signage or programming; move it to another public site, such as a museum; change or expand its meaning by adding new art; or remove it from view. (Destroying is not an option, and in my opinion should never be.)
Of the four monuments the commission considered, all of them of sustained contention in the city, only one, an 1894 statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims (1813-1883) on Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street, will be sent into exile. A South Carolina slave-owner and physician, Sims did pioneering work in gynecological surgery, but performed many of his experiments on black female slaves, and using no anesthesia. His statue, which has long faced East Harlem and roiled its residents, will be moved to the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where he’s buried.