27 September 2023

Editing the past: Why do we tear down statues?

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Jonah Engel Bromwich* interviews art historian, Erin L. Thompson, who has spent her career thinking about what it means when people deliberately destroy icons of cultural heritage.

What are the some of the issues that arise when we talk about statues being torn down?

As an art historian I know that destruction is the norm and preservation is the rare exception.

We have been making monuments to glorify people and ideas since we started making art.

Since we started making statues, other people have started tearing them down.

There are statues from the ancient Near East of Assyrian Kings that have curses carved on them.

They say: “He who knocks down my statue, let him be in pain for the rest of his life.”

So we know from those that one strategy of rebellion in 2,700BC was knocking down a statue.

So it’s not surprising that we are seeing people rebelling against ideas that are represented by these statues today.

I feel as if the reflexive for a long time has been to preserve anything that can teach us more about history, is that not the case?

A lot of people assume that since I’m an art historian I would want everything preserved but I know that preservation is expensive.

It’s expensive literally in that people have to pay for maintaining these statues.

A couple of journalists in 2018 did an amazing investigation for Smithsonian Magazine and found that in the previous 10 years, taxpayers had spent at least $40 million preserving Confederate monuments and sites.

So I look at these statues as money sinks.

I think about all of the amazing sites of African-American history or Native American history that are disintegrating from lack of funding and think those dollars could be better spent elsewhere.

Are there other aspects of tearing a statue down that people may not immediately understand or consider?

Throughout history, destroying an image has been felt as attacking the person represented in that image.

When people attack statues, they attack the parts that would be vulnerable on a human being.

We see ancient Roman statues with the eyes gouged out or the ears cut off.

It’s a very satisfying way of attacking an idea — not just by rejecting but humiliating it.

So it feels very good in a way that is potentially problematic.

I’m certainly not advocating for the destruction of all offensive statues in the United States in part because it’s very dangerous.

Protesters have already been severely injured tearing down statues.

What do the attacks on statues in recent weeks tell us about the protests themselves?

The current attacks on statues are a sign that what’s in question is not just our future but our past, I think, as a nation, as a society, as a world.

These attacks show how deeply white supremacy is rooted in our national structure.

We need to question everything about the way we understand the world, even the past, in order to get to a better future.

What’s a statue?

I think a statue is a bid for immortality.

It’s a way of solidifying an idea and making it present to other people.

So that is what’s really at issue here.

It’s not the statues themselves but the point of view that they represent.

These are statues in public places, right?

So these are statues claiming that this version of history is the public version of history.

What do you make of the comparisons between what protesters in the US are doing and what the Islamic State did in destroying monuments in Palmyra?

I don’t think we can say that destruction is always warranted or that destruction is never warranted.

We have to think about who is doing the destruction for what purposes.

ISIS was destroying monuments of a tolerant past in order to achieve a future of violence and hate.

These protesters are attacking symbols of a hateful past as part of fighting for a peaceful future.

So I think they’re exactly opposite actions.

Look at ISIS’s destruction of monuments at Palmyra, these Roman temples.

The effect of that was to destroy the tourist economy of the modern city of Tadmor, next to Palmyra, which made achieving peace and stability in the region even harder.

You now have thousands of people out of a job.

ISIS also raised a lot of money: Their destruction was a propaganda act to get people to make donations to the jihadist cause.

They sold antiquities that they stole from the museum of Palmyra in order to conduct war.

It’s a very different context to what is happening now.

I wish that what is happening now with statues being torn down didn’t have to happen this way.

However, there have been decades of peaceful protest against many of these statues, in many cases before the statues were even erected — which have come to nothing.

So if people lose hope in the possibility of a peaceful resolution, they’re going to find other means.

*Jonah Engel Bromwich is a New York Times news and features reporter, writing about cultural change. He tweets @jonesieman.

A fuller version of this interview appeared on the New York Times website.

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