Calls to pull down ‘offensive’ statues should be met with stony silence

Ironically, Robert E. Lee would have been against sculptures of himself in full military gear, writes Terry Prone

Calls to pull down ‘offensive’ statues should be met with stony silence

BRITAIN’S Queen Victoria has been the target of some folks in Cork who want her name removed from streets.

All references to Queen Victoria would be expunged from the maps, if they had their way.

The anti-Victoria campaign slightly preceded the American one to rid public places of Confederate statues, but the two are aligned in their shared belief that such references to the past are unacceptable.

In the middle of all this brouhaha about name plates being ripped off street corners and statues being torn down so as not to offend people, Victoria is the only woman referenced.

In the US, they want Civil War generals, the likes of Robert E. Lee, off their pedestals and off their horses. Nobody’s asking for the destruction of statues of women who represent the culture of the antebellum South. No such statues exist, because, while the culture of the antebellum South may have majored on a mannered courtesy to women who were rendered largely immobile by their hooped skirts, and who had little to do but sit on the porch swing sipping a mint julep and instructing the slaves on the day’s menu, this image didn’t get immortalised in bronze that much. Funny, the way the people — including women — who want the special culture of the South remembered never notice that half of the population of the time goes unrepresented in that statuary.

It can be said that since women did not fight in armies or become starred generals, then it is logical that they would not figure in statues, since celebrity, back then, was largely defined by military action. It could also be argued that a culture addicted to the one section of the populace professionally dedicated to killing is not to be admired, but the southern states of America are not unique in this.

Right across Europe, statuary commemorates predominantly military men, mitigated by some statues of clerics and poets. Women didn’t, in the main, become famous enough to commemorate by virtue of military service; they served within the church hierarchy or produced sonnets. Those responsible for the commissioning of public art over the last millennium viewed the birthing and rearing of humankind as a necessary, but humdrum, occupation, perhaps because it’s short of guns, swords, and horses. Where women got a look in, it was as an emblem of some heroic trait, characteristic, or virtue, best personified stark naked. Undressed to kill, so to speak.

The advantage of the mission to remove statues and change street names is that nobody dies and a bunch of people get a lot of pent-up rage off their chests. You don’t have to share the pent-up rage to admire it as an example of the 21st century’s capacity to get outraged. Take Victoria, for example. Activists in Cork want her name removed from every street where it currently lives.

Now, having been born in Clontarf, on the northside of Dublin, I encountered Queen Victoria every day on the way to school, as I passed Victoria Rd in the older part of that suburb. Neither I, nor my peers, registered it as having anything other than locational significance. We did not stop and condemn Queen Victoria for her failure to understand or to ameliorate the horrors of the Famine, or any of the other ghastly outcomes of rampant colonialism that occurred on her watch. The road was just Victoria Rd, same as Holles Street is Holles St. Who was Holles? Who cares?

But then, none of us, headed for the local school, carried a family history rooted in Famine suffering. Our ancestors might have gone hungry but they procreated and passed on no remembered suffering. So, even if we had worked out that the road on which we cycled was named for an English queen, the implied reference to past cruelties would have been too tenuous to provoke us into outrage. That’s not the case in the former Confederacy, where a statue of Robert E. Lee carries a more vivid implication.

The problem, of course, is that where a statue evokes an emotion, that evocation tends to be blunt and without nuance, no matter which side of the issue you’re on. A statue of Abraham Lincoln, for example, is seen as representing the man who freed the slaves, whereas one of Lee is seen as representing the man who did all he could to prevent it. Neither is absolutely true.

Lincoln’s priorities tend to be retrospectively attributed, but he himself said that if he could have preserved the Union without freeing a single slave, he would have done so.

On the other hand, Lee, years before the first bullet was fired in the American Civil War, wrote to his wife describing slavery as “a moral and political evil in any country”.

Years after the last bullet was fired in that conflict, he declined an invitation from a group organising a meeting of military men at Gettysburg to discuss the placement of statues on the battlefield. This was to help visitors work out the tragic sequence of the conflict. But Lee said that he wouldn’t take part and he disapproved of the notion of statues commemorating the event. He said that it would be wiser “not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered”.

Ironically, then, Lee would have been against the erection of sculptures of himself in full military gear, and would have understood 21st-century objections to them as “keeping open the sores of war.”

The fashion for immortalising military and political figures in bronze ended, unnoticed, several decades ago.

In the US, it’s difficult to locate a statue of Dwight D. Eisenhower, even though he commanded immeasurably more troops than any previous US general, over a longer period of time and on more battle fronts, in a war that shaped the following century, in global terms. If such statues exist, it’s safe to assume they don’t attract either the numbers of visitors or the level of emotional attention of the Famine statues on the quays of our capital city.

The visitors who stand to look at those emaciated figures don’t see them as glorifying a time or a culture. They see human suffering and the persistence of life beyond the possibility of optimism.

The future of representational public art lies in the direction of those skeletal figures. We’re done with the politicians, military men, and monarchs.

But if we in Ireland get around to pulling any of the old statues down, how about we start with the one commemorating William Smith O’Brien in Dublin, the 19th-century patriot exiled to Tasmania and there accused of a sex act with a 12-year-old? Or at least editing the engraving, so it reads ‘Patriot and Paedophile’?

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