The Toppling Of Statues: Is It Time To Shake Up Our Icons?

What does it mean to see statues coming down, and how should we feel about it? Whether you’re a history buff, or reluctant victim of school trips, you can likely recall the sensation of walking through a room filled with statues. As beautiful as they may be, each was once made in the image of hero or a tyrant, or someone a little more complex and true to human nature — whether mortal or deity — inhabiting a place upon the sliding scale in between. Now, in 2020, the toppling of statues has entered the arena of public debate perhaps more than ever before. Heated protest meets counter protest, over a myriad of issues, including the destined fate of many a cast or carved historical figurehead.

Whether applauding, or incensed — or maybe just a little uneasy — many forget that the unseating of statues is nothing new. For as long as we’ve been erecting them, we have also been tearing them down, from Medieval Christians wrecking the relics on Ancient Rome, to conquering Spaniards demolishing Aztec and Incan masterpieces. Sometimes the practice reflects a rewriting of history, while at others it reflects an increased reverence for it. As the current wave of defaced and nose-diving monuments meet their various fates, perhaps it is time to lift ego from the equation, and instead consider the value of experiencing our society collectively evolve.

The Downfall Of Icons

The swell of the Black Lives Matter protest had it’s straw and camel moment in the United States with the death of George Floyd, so perhaps it’s fitting to reflect back on one of the earliest known statue oustings of the so-called land of liberty. Back in 1776, only a few short days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, soldiers and civilians famously tore down a gilt statue of Britain’s King George III, right in the heart of Manhattan. As the USA was born, a statue met it’s demise, and so the course of human evolution continued.

The toppling of certain statues arrive at a pivotal moment, such as that of Hungarian dictator Joseph Stalin in the 1956 revolution, or of Saddam Hussein after the US invasion in 2003. Others mark the tragic destruction of something ancient, such as the centuries old giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, or the recent lost monuments of Palmyra, Syria, at the hands of the Islamic State. Others yet, represent a lingering poignancy — the correcting of history miss-told, or the removal of symbols of long standing injustice. Imagine the felling of British politician Cecil Rhodes in Zimbabwe — formerly known as Rhodesia, or the thousands of Lenin statues recently painted or smashed across the Ukraine.

The Discomfort Of Clarity

We seem to hold onto ties between our sense of identity, and the rose-tinting of the past, and to struggle with being objective when history books are edited for accuracy. We forget that the job of historians is to seek greater clarity, and tease the truth out from underneath each era’s propaganda. When young Bristolians rolled the statue of slaver Edward Colston down a hill and into Bristol’s Harbour, far from erasing the history of Colston’s action, they gave him greater notoriety than ever before.

As Londoners turn their eyes to statues of Winston Churchill, their actions don’t erase the reality that this was the man at the helm when the Nazis were defeated, but rather reflect the sad truth that his colonial policies led to the last famine in Bengal in 1943, in which some three million “beastly people”, as he described Bengalis, lost their lives. There can be no sugar coating of the devastation laid upon many a culture by colonialism, and in today’s time of accessible information, the moment has come to look back with clarity, and skip the habit of sweeping unsavoury truths under the carpet.

Should Effigies Be Eternal?

Scientific study describes the mere-exposure effect, a phenomena by which we develop a preference for things, simply because we are often exposed to them. Knowing that what we see every day can permeate subliminally, perhaps it’s worth giving careful thought to the icons that fill our public spaces. As we grapple with what recognizing barbaric acts of the past means for our future, we can also reflect on the illusory truth effect, by which we have the tendency to believe false information to be correct if we hear it enough times.

Today, we understand the flaws of human thinking better than ever. We can either allow this knowledge to be harnessed for modern misdeeds, or we can use our understanding to build a more constructive future. As discussions take place about replacing felled statues with new ones of Prince or Dolly Parton, some might roll their eyes, but are these not greater influencers of current culture? If not celebrities, who do we want our future icons to be — whose presence on plinths with give the most to, and represent the best of, our societies?

Deciding The Fate Of The Fallen

In Belgium, the dropping statues are those of King Leopold II, a man once reinvented in the history books as the “Builder King”. Today his legacy’s rosy shroud has been removed, and he is recognized as a rampant paedophile whose reign in Congo saw the violent murder of some 10 million people. The director of the Africa Museum in Tervuren has received many requests to take the fallen statues, but is resisting for fear of creating an monument to monstrosity. When questioned, he said “I could maybe take a few of these statues here and make some kind of contemporary art out of them”.

In parallel, internationally renowned and yet tantalizingly anonymous Bristolian artist Banksy suggested resurrecting the statue of Edward Colston at a jaunty angle, and adding further characters to the artwork in the act of tearing it down — forever in memoriam. There seems to be merit in keeping the artistic works that we no longer deem worthy of the public sphere, as part of our historic record, but maybe it’s not such a loss if we don’t have space for all of them. Perhaps too, the transformation of old relics into modern art installations is another sign on cultural evolution — maybe this is exactly the kind of expression that our current era needs.

Making Space To Evolve

If we are to move past the injustices of history, we not only need to make united gestures of recognition for those who were oppressed, but also to make peace with the reality that many were complicit without ill intention, or fundamental understanding. Simply because the lines of acceptability have moved since a century ago, a decade ago, or even yesterday, doesn’t mean we have to sit in paralysis, afraid of moving forwards. This is where the ego can be released — it’s not about you or me, beyond the actions that we will take on the road ahead. It’s about evolution. It’s time to shake off some of history’s shackles, look back from a new contemporary mindset, and look forward with a focus for how we can unite in prosperity.

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