Statues: More not Fewer


No statue possesses an inherent meaning. Indeed, within the material universe the only place where meaning can be said to reside is inside the human skull. That is, no statue, no building, no painting, no dead object can impose its agenda on the person observing it, for it has, and can have, no agenda. At most the observer can enter into an implicit contract with the creator or fabricator of the object to accept their intentions as definitive. But no such contract is necessary or enforceable. An outward acceptance of the meaning can be compelled but not an inward one.

Museums and public spaces around the world are full of statuary totally divorced from the original purpose intended for it by its sculptors. For example, elements of the Parthenon frieze have been transposed from Athens to London where a benevolent British government preserves them as a part of the world’s heritage. None of the millions of people who view these so-called Elgin marbles today ascribe anything like the same meanings to them that the Athenian devotees of the goddess did thousands of years ago. Even irate modern Greeks view them more in terms of contemporary national prestige and international diplomacy than in the spirit of the Panathenaic games which the Olympians presided over.

A recent wave of iconoclasm in the Muslim world has affected objects as varied as Buddhist images in Afghanistan and artefacts from the cult of Bel in Palmyra. The rationale behind the destruction is that these represented false gods which led people away from the one great truth. Yet previous generations of Muslims had been intensely relaxed about these statues because they had not entered into any contract with the original makers of them. Since no one worshipped them any more they had ceased to be religious objects and had become instead cultural and historical subjects of interest. If you have defeated the false gods which exist inside the skulls of humans you have no need to get uptight about the artwork these humans produced.

The current (2017) surge of iconoclastic activity in the West seems premised on the notions that false gods, racism, colonialism, sexism etc etc, are still alive, they still have worshippers and destroying their cult objects will inflict material harm on their cult. Granting the premise that these gods still exist it seems dubious that the most effective method of killing them off is through exercising the power of destruction. Given that visible objects play some constructive part in how the mind is formed and sustained in its beliefs then refusing to enter into a contract with the makers of ‘evil’ statues and encouraging others in the same act of refusal is the place to start. To coin a phrase, the answer to bad statuary is better statuary.

This could mean contesting the meaning of what exists, since it has no inherent meaning, and creating a new framework into which to fit it. Thus a symbol intended to be triumphalist can become, like the statue of Ozymandias, an emblem conveying the exact opposite meaning from that intended by its creator. Alternatively, given that a public space big enough to hold one statue is likely to be big enough to hold two, additional symbols can be added-in making, or intending to make, a significant alteration to the range of possible meanings an observer could deduce from seeing them.

There is precedent for this. In the sanctuary of Pythian Apollo at Delphi the Athenians erected a statue to celebrate victory over Sparta. In due course the Spartans raised another one to celebrate their victory over Athens. Some years later the Thebans installed a new set of figures commemorating their victory over both Athens and Sparta. And so on and so forth for about a thousand years. The partisans of the rival Greek cities did not pull down or destroy the emblems which memorialized their historic humiliations, they left it up to the gods to decide which they would accept and which reject. Ultimately it was Time who made the final decision since no one reading this now cares one way or the other who won which ancient Greek battle. As, indeed, in a surprisingly short time no one will care, or possibly even know, about current controversies in the Western world (except perhaps those involving nuclear warheads.)

One approach, then, to the arguments anent statues plaguing the United States at the moment would be neither destruction nor substitution but addition. So, for example, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee could be paired with one of an African American soldier of the Union or a civil rights campaigner like Rosa Parks. Similarly a bust of eugenicist and Ku Klux Klan speaker Margaret Sanger might face off against an image of an unborn child in the womb at 18 weeks gestation. Observers are not faced with a singular statement which they must accept or reject but a dialogue into which they can enter or a narrative which they can construct. Since no single statue has inherent meaning it follows that no group of statues has such meaning either. Therefore forming such groupings allows each individual and each new generation to create their own meanings or construct their own narratives through their processes of engagement with both history and the contemporary values of the society they happen by chance to inhabit.

In any event construction, precisely because it is more difficult, challenging and mind-stretching than destruction, is surely a better way to respond to the shadows cast by false gods and their still active worshippers than iconoclasm. Give people new ideas not new grievances and you create potential converts. Give them new grievances instead of new ideas and you create implacable enemies.

thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page

My *other* blog is thoughtfully catholic

The picture is of the Colossus of Rhodes from an 18th century print


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