Discover more from Clio's Younger Brother
(Insert clever title with the word "monumental" here)
A review of Erin L. Thompson's Smashing Statues
( Copyright information about the photo accompanying this article can be found here.)
Erin L. Thompson’s take on offensive public monuments is based on the premise that these monuments can pose such a great threat to traditionally-marginalized groups as to justify Smashing Statues.
Thompson is a professor at the City University of New York. She is a professor of art crime, and her faculty profile claims that she is the only professor of art crime in the country. Based on information in her profile and this book, her research includes the destruction of artwork in war, art forgery, and other issues at the intersection of art and crime. In Smashing Statues, she approves of a particular kind of art crime - the mob destruction of official Confederate monuments and other monuments which Thompson deems equally oppressive. To be sure, for Thompson the ideal situation would be for local communities - generally cities - to vote to remove bad monuments through a legal and democratic process. But as Thompson documents, there are often litigation threats and state laws which impede local communities in their ability to remove public art which was set up at an earlier era to convey offensive messages.
So to Thompson, there might really be no easy way for (say) black people offended by Confederate monuments to take them down - so it would be all right for them to go over and pull the things down with ropes. Or for that matter, Native Americans offended by a Columbus statue really have no choice but to tear the statue down, since the official process for removing a statue doesn’t “work” (i. e., grant the demands for officially tearing the statue down). Generally, the Italian-American community tends to like Columbus statues - at least, it was Italian-Americans who often were responsible for these statues going up - but the claims of the Native Americans for pulling the statues down are (to Thompson) more important than the Italian-American claims for keeping the statues up.
Statues honoring bad people and bad causes - especially the Confederacy - are to Thompson so incredibly dangerous as to justify illegal action to take them down, if official channels aren’t working for that purpose. Thompson largely expects readers to endorse illegal toppling based on the wrongness of honoring (for example) the Confederacy in an official setting (courthouse lawns, public parks, etc.).
As Thompson documents with many examples, Confederate monuments were set up by white racist elites during the Jim Crow era not only to “remember history” but to convey a contemporary message to the black population that they ought not to have equal rights. Another implied message - especially with monuments to private Confederate soldiers - was that white workers should quietly submit to their exploitative factory bosses like Confederate privates dutifully obeying their officers. Certainly unionization was out of the question, and interracial unionization doubly so.
In fact, the book’s historical analysis of how various monuments came to be erected is quite fascinating. Thompson starts with the statue of Freedom in the U. S. Capitol being built with the assistance of a slave’s work (or “enslaved person,” if the term “slave” is considered insulting). There is a fascinating history of the crooked, debt-plagued sculptor who was responsible for starting work on the Confederate memorials on Georgia’s Stone Mountain, and of the revived Ku Klux Klan’s using the mountain for its meetings and its propaganda (until the temporary collapse of the Klan in the mid-twenties after a Klan boss killed a (white) woman). The timing of building Confederate monuments by Birmingham, Alabama’s elite - when the ruling orders faced the threat of strikes by interracial unions - is very interesting. The portrayals of the statue-topplers, while uncritically sympathetic, are interesting reads.
Given not only the wickedness of the Confederacy but the bad contemporary message reflected in Confederate monuments, Thompson wants the reader to support the removal of monuments by any means necessary, legal if possible, illegal if the legal channels don’t immediately produce results. There’s no room here for procedural arguments that activists should confine themselves to the democratic process - flawed as it is and subject to delay - or even the risk of wrong decisions. Again, the moral urgency is too great, or so we are asked to believe.
I am certainly one of those who think that honoring bad people and bad causes in public monuments is a bad thing, and that such monuments should at minimum be removed from places of honor. But I am also one of those who think that monument-removal should be done through legal channels.
Bad monuments damage a community’s values - the entire community’s values, in my view. Monuments should reflect a community’s best traditions and aspirations, not their worst. Thus monuments honoring the Confederacy, slavery, and racism should be voted out by local governments, just as they were voted in by earlier, misguided, governments. State laws protecting monuments from local governments are ridiculous and should be repealed.
But here comes my caveat: bad statues are one of those evils which, until they’re abolished legally, can be borne with fortitude without crossing the line into mob violence. Mobs can’t always be limited to hurting stone and metal statues - they can sometimes direct their depredations toward actual humans, and businesses. Basically, mob rule really ought to be discouraged, not encouraged.
And that’s even before we get to another point - the process of democratic debate can sort out those monuments which are actually bad (e. g., Confederate memorials) from monuments whose subjects might actually be worthy of commemoration - e. g., abolitionist Union officers who died for freedom.
Outside the context of “smashing statues,” there are plenty of instances of inappropriate historical memorials being renamed - college building names, street names, military base names. This was done without violence. So why is violence deemed “necessary” where statues are concerned?
All this can be considered, in many cases, in the context of the social unrest of 2020, which is a much broader story - suffice to say that the leaders of these demonstrations did not exactly bend over backwards to stop violence by some of the demonstration participants.
Bear in mind that the position I defend at Clio’s Younger Brother is that history does matter, and can influence the present. Bad history can give the wrong lessons. Even good history, if overenthusiastically invoked, can give the wrong lessons too. There are people who do good and heroic actions - soldiers, statespersons, inventors, scientists, activists - and who ought to be publicly honored - through the traditional method of heroic statues, or through holograms, etc. (Holograms may be a good idea if we’re going to keep reconsidering our heroes - it’s less fuss to turn off a hologram than to pull down and melt a whole statue.)