Our recollection of history is malleable, and confronting this paradox takes us down a tricky path of potholes filled with denial and subjectivities. The debate over Civil War monuments could have been a shorter one if we collectively had a better understanding of our history and the presence of mind to challenge our understanding of it. These statues are more than monuments of misunderstood history; many stand as symbols of divisiveness, inequality, and terror. Visibility and erasure sit at the root of this divisiveness, which is where this debate around Civil War monuments appears to be stuck. I recently came across a TED talk that illustrates the challenges presented by subjectivity, visibility, and erasure in art history.
In his April 2017 talk, Titus Kaphar recalls a visit to the National History Museum where an encounter with a presidential statue prompted a curious question from his son about Teddy Roosevelt. Sitting prominently on a horse, Roosevelt is flanked by two men walking on either side of the president, one was African-American while the other was Native American. Kaphar’s son quizzically looked at the statue and asked his father, “how come he gets to ride and they have to walk?” This innocent question shines a light on how we have used symbols to establish and perpetuate power and ultimately define history. Monuments have subsumed a position of idolatry that somehow elevates symbols of heritage over the malleability of history. This misguided reverence for statuary also perpetuates idealized standards of power and beauty that have permeated all forms of artistic expression. This has left us with a cultural void in our understanding of history.
The debate over the removal of Civil War statues places us in a cultural tug of war between our duty to accurately codify history and a perceived threat of erasure. Ultimately these statues became inanimate proxies for systemic racism, classism, and power and as such, the debate over their public presence prevents us from addressing the power structures that put these monuments in place. Many Confederate statues were erected during periods of racial recalibration (pre-Jim Crow and during the battle for Civil Rights) where the majority population’s fear of black independence, freedom, and equality fueled a need for visual and symbolic reinforcements of southern resistance and redemption. In reality, the imagery presented by these monuments fueled a revisionist history that glorified the aggressors instead of acknowledging the aggrieved. We must remember that these monuments are a subjective rendering of history and by removing them we don’t whitewash history, rather they can be used to correct our field of vision around memory. Artists, scholars, curators, and museums can use these artifacts to illustrate the multifaceted stories these monuments both illuminate and ignore. As a museum educator and consultant noted in a blog post titled, Truth and Tales in Museums, “History is a collective concept composed of memories, writing, artifacts, artworks, and monuments. Every element can be described in infinite ways, memorialized by some, and contested by others. Proponents and detractors alike, whether in Ancient Greece or contemporary America, might claim that they are telling history. But, in fact, they are just sharing their slice. Their rendering is but a story.”
I remember a humorous story on NPR’s “This American Life” where host Ira Glass talked to a friend who was recounting a story about an encounter with Jackie Kennedy. His version was so precise and clear, he recalled specific details about the location, the weather and what Kennedy was wearing–while his wife’s version of the story bore a similar resemblance in the factual account of the event, a critically important detail was missing. One of the people in the story was never there… Who’s right? If something as trivial as the recollection of a Jackie Kennedy sighting can illicit irregularities and inconsistencies, is it far-fetched to acknowledge that our own rendering of history may eliminate or obscure critical elements?
In Kaphar’s TED talk he illustrates this idea of obscuring details and punctuating others through showing a Frans Hals painting that includes a young black child who is fairly hidden in the shadows compared to the prominently composed white figures.
He proceeds to display a recreation he made and he paints over the highlighted characters to emphasize the young black man’s presence. By shifting the viewer’s focus he offers up an alternative view that’s ultimately more inclusive. This demonstration is a metaphor for the debate over statues; as Kaphar whitewashed these images I imagined this stoking the fears people have over whitewashing history. That is not what Kaphar is suggesting–instead, he temporarily removed one narrative in order to add another. In the demonstration, he added linseed oil to the white washed images allowing them to slowly come back into focus. Our problem is not with erasing history, our challenge is that we must acknowledge the historical context behind these monuments and the damaging social mores they attempted to reinforce. We must do this while shining a light on the elements of our history that were previously made invisible to us.