June was full of rage. Supporters of Black Lives Matter demonstrated their fury with those in power, and with those who believe that their paler skin alone gives them power. The policing of these anti-racism rallies made BLM supporters even angrier, since the movement’s catalyst was brutal police action in the US. However, in the UK much of the ensuing bitterness was directed not at actual people but at statues.
The statues were elderly. They were erected during a time when ‘honourable’ British men were glorified for their humanitarianism while blithely eclipsing the dehumanisation that enabled it. Men such as Edward Coulson, Cecil Rhodes, Robert Baden-Powell, Winston Churchill, William Gladstone and Thomas Guy. Since the notion of ‘honour’ is mutable, history’s heroes are not always today’s. As a result, counterbalancing a direct connection to slavery or racism with philanthropy or civic duty tastes acrid in 2020.
Statues connote ‘perfect’ people. That none exist did not bother the 19th and 20th century commissioners of commemorative works: even the saintly Florence Nightingale would today be exposed as an office bully once the media started picking over the details of her ward regime. When statesmen are lionized in sculptural form they stand in anachronistic, noble poses, their chins high and their trousers discreetly genital-free. Placed on a dais for mere mortals to literally look up to, they are the worst kind of moral didacticism. Loser, says the statue. Look what I did. You cannot possibly be better than me.
Made in materials chosen for longevity, these monuments are symbols of commitment to a way of thinking. The expense and gravitas of crafting a person in brass or stone originates in the assumption that people will still be thinking the same way a century later. But cultural developments outpace statues. Who could have predicted even twenty years ago that same-sex marriage would become enshrined in law? If you must erect statues, perhaps wood (or even papier mâché) is a more appropriate medium.
Does anyone actually believe that these blank effigies make the street a better place? Statues were once the best way to bring the dead to life. They have been superseded by film, television, video, 3D and holograms, all of which recreate life more convincingly than a man made of marble. Once you’ve stopped admiring the physique of Michelangelo’s naked ‘David’, look up to the face. Stern and inanimate, much as you’d expect from chiselled rock. Even worse, the ice-cream hair and rigid expression of a dressed statue must sit above six feet of carved clothing, offering little to engage us plebs down at pavement level.
One problem is that pre-21st century statues tend to be life-sized copies. They are presented head to toe like human replicas and this in itself can invite violence to their ‘person’. (Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid has had her arm hacked off and twice been decapitated, and her only crime was to exist in the mind of Hans Christian Anderson.) The brief of a Victorian or Edwardian patron was rarely for an interpretation of the fêted one, yet it’s only when a sculptor goes beyond dead ringer that the art itself becomes interesting. Otherwise that’s just another Charlie Big Potatoes up there, and he’s asking for it.
Why not exploit the exploiter? Melissa Hamnett, Head of Heritage Collections at The Palace of Westminster (more than a few maleficent stiffs in those corridors) suggests adding a QR code to each statue rather than turfing them all out. By linking the viewer to an individual’s biography - not the pro-colonial, edited version but the wider, uncensored facts - the statue can fulfil a different role to the intended one of purely inspiring gratitude and esteem. Information is power. After all, felling statues can start the ball rolling but only education changes the world.