The power of images
The removal (and destruction) of confederate monuments across the United States has put the enormous power of images front and center. The New York Times ran the photograph below, showing a man in Baltimore taking a photograph of the middle-of-the night removal of a confederate monument, on the front page of their print edition. We all snap and share images of our personal lives and of public events—in fact, it is estimated that more than 1.3 trillion photographs will be taken in 2017. Paradoxically, this ubiquity can sometimes make it difficult to clearly understand the tremendous impact that images have. As recent events have made clear though, there is no doubt that images—whether digital or bronze—wield the power to wound, to persuade, to ennoble, and to transport us—as they have throughout history. Despite this, our country does little to support education that would give people the tools to place the current crisis around confederate monuments within an historical context—education that would inform our understanding of the images that we make and consume every day.
Images in the aftermath of war
The recent removal of the monument pictured in The New York Times photograph stands in a long history of removing, defacing, and destroying images though it is important to acknowledge that the present crisis is, in many ways, historically unique. Images have long had a role in war and its aftermath but the circumstances and meaning can vary widely. Unlike the present turmoil, the destruction or confiscation of cultural property has been used frequently in the past to punish enemies and assert dominance, as when the ancient Persians destroyed the temples on the Athenian Acropolis and toppled the sacred sculptures there. Wholesale destruction can even be used to intentionally erase history: in the sixteenth century, the main Aztec temple, the Templo Mayor, was razed and buried under Spanish colonial architecture only to be discovered centuries later below present day Mexico City. Or, conversely, treasures taken as war booty can be showcased to emphasize victory. When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem they carried off its sacred objects and triumphantly paraded the spoils through the streets of Rome, exhibiting them in the Temple of Peace in Rome (representations of these objects can still be seen in a relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome).
The Baltimore sculpture provides yet another example of the complex ways that images can be used in the aftermath of war. In this case, the monument (and many others like it) was created decades after the defeat of the Confederacy, but it claimed some victory—even nobility—in that defeat. But for many (and for us), it also served as a constant reminder that although the Confederacy is history, it’s brutal racial legacy lives on.
A new plaque on an old statue
A new plaque, placed beside the sculpture in 2016, recognized the violence and oppression that was barely hidden by the veneer of idealized, heroic figures.
The plaque stated:
Monuments like this one helped to perpetuate the ideology of the Lost Cause movement which began shortly after the Civil War to promote the views of Confederate sympathizers about the causes and events of the Civil War. Popular national organizations, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, perpetuated many of the Lost Cause tenets, which portrayed slavery as benign, secession as justified, and advocated for white supremacy. In the same decade that this monument was installed, Baltimore City adopted racial segregation housing ordinances and deed covenants, supported segregation policies in public spaces and programs, and unequally funded African American school budgets, infrastructure improvements, and public programs.
But with the current resurgence of nationalism and racism, the plaque wasn’t enough, and the municipal authorities made the decision—understandably given the violence in Charlottesville last week—to remove the sculpture altogether out of a concern for the safety and security of the people of Baltimore.
“Not just stone and metal”
The statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other Confederate figures were largely erected during the first half of the twentieth century, though some date to late nineteenth century and some are more recent. Their commonality, however, is that they all put on a pedestal the nation’s violent racist legacy of repression. As the mayor of New Orleans stated on the occasion of that city’s removal of Confederate memorials, “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”
The related questions of what to do with monuments that have been removed from their original locations, and the fate of the sites themselves, remain. Should placards be erected in their place that use words and pictures to reference the object that once stood in that place, while also explaining the reason for its removal? Should we replace the sculptures with new monuments that express a more inclusive history? Should the sculptures go on display in a museum where they can continue to be viewed and studied? Should they be put in storage? Just a few days ago, a sculpture of a Confederate soldier was destroyed in Durham, North Carolina though for very different reasons than those that enraged the people of Elberton, Georgia over a century earlier. In 1900, citizens of Elberton felt that a local sculpture of a Confederate soldier too closely resembled a Union soldier and the statue was pulled down in the middle of the night and buried face down. This fascinating story comes to us today thanks to The Washington Post reporter Marc Fisher, who interviewed art historian, Dr. Sarah Beetham, who has studied these monuments.
The value of art history education
Though this is clearly a moment of great tension, we think it is an important opportunity to reflect on the value of the work of art historians (like Sarah Beetham) and of art history education more generally. This is why Smarthistory, with its consortium of more than 200 academic contributors, is producing ARCHES (At Risk Cultural Heritage Education Series), funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, to explore the long history of the destruction and dis-empowering of images, and to address the current global crisis of the destruction of cultural heritage through looting and trafficking.
Another project, which will begin in October, Picturing America, funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Walton Family Foundation, will use images (paintings, sculptures, monuments, photographs, decorative art, etc.) as entry points into an inclusive history of the United States within the broader context of North America. Although we do not now generally include the history of art in our schools, the power of images clearly remains as potent now as it has throughout human history. Wouldn’t we, as a nation, be better equipped to understand and navigate the current crisis and others like it if we included in our schools’ curricula the history of art and culture?
by Beth Harris, Steven Zucker, and Naraelle Hohensee
Featured image source: Special Commission to Review Baltimore’s Public Confederate Monuments (August 2016)