Saturday, July 11, 2020

My Musings about Monuments

Me, leaving my mark on Lennon Wall (totally legal )
Emotions have been running high lately concerning statues, in my town and across the country. Angry people are defacing and toppling Confederate monuments, which makes other people angry. As an artist, I am very conscious that the things we make as individuals and as society, tell our history. I love that people are talking about what stories are being told with these monuments and trying to figure out where to go from here. I don't have strong opinions about most monuments in the news, nor do I have answers, but on my trip to The Czech Republic a couple of years ago, I learned a few things about how they handled similar problems.

The walls of the synagogue covered with names
German Nazis occupied what was then called Czechoslovakia from 1938-1945, which was two years longer than the existence of the Confederacy in the U.S. (1860-1865). There are no statues of Hitler making his triumphal march into Prague, no flags with swastikas on any of the buildings. Do the Czechs even remember who Hitler is? Are they so offended that they erased that part of their history? Of course not. Younger generations learn of Hitler's oppression and atrocities in their country as I did, when I walked the haunted grounds of Terezin Ghetto and concentration camp. The Czechs also preserved the Jewish Quarters of Prague where I visited and saw the meticulously painted names on the walls of a synagogue, of every Czech Jew, killed by the Nazis.

A close up of the synagogue wall. Each name represents a life taken by the Nazis
In 1945, the Soviet tanks came into Prague, ending the Nazi occupation, and the official Communist coup of February 1948, introduced 40 years of Communism to the country. A monument to the Soviet Tank Crew was erected by the government to honor their military. Fast forward to the miraculous Velvet Revolution of 1989, which consisted of non-violent protests, and resulted in a peaceful change of power- a waving goodbye to the Soviet oppression.

A freed people didn't want to honor the Soviet Tank Crew, nor the military state that held them hostage, yet the tank monument wasn't removed. Instead it was painted pink by an art student under the blanket of night! The shape of the tank told one chapter of history, and the updated surface treatment told another. The government that had terrorized them for decades was now left impotent as their deadly weapon was harmless. The monument now stands to memorialize the Velvet Revolution.

The monument to the survivors of communism
The Czechs also created a new monument to commemorate the victims of Communism: a long and slanted staircase showing six bronze men,  deteriorating and breaking apart more with each step. It was created by the Confederation of Political Prisoners and is dedicated to "all victims not only those who were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism."
The monument includes numbers such as:
  • 205,486 arrested
  • 170,938 forced into exile
  • 4,500 died in prison
  • 327 shot trying to escape
  • 248 executed

I came to this monument in 2018, 60 years after the Communists took over. There were floral wreaths on the ground and seats set up for what looked like a ceremony about to happen. A bus pulled up and out walked some elderly people with yellow scarves. These were those who suffered under the oppressive hand of Communist rule, and they were being honored. I helped a fragile looking man up the monument's steep and slanted stairs, while nodding my head to whatever he was saying in Czech. When we reached the top, I turned to see others, helping other survivors up the difficult path. Generally history is told by the winner. Sometimes it is told by the oppressor, but the masses of every day people, the ones who were censored for decades or centuries deserve to speak. They are not outside history, and they are not less important just because they held less power for a time.
My brother and husband helping a woman up the monument
Me painting my Ellsworth family crest on Lennon Wall
When rock legend, John Lennon was assassinated in 1980, nine years before the Velvet Revolution, his mourning fans painted messages of peace and freedom as well as grievances to the government on a wall across from Legislative Council. The government painted over the graffiti, but it didn't take long before the young activists were back with paint buckets, making nuances of themselves again. This went back and forth enough times, that eventually the government gave up and the wall, known as Lennon Wall, remains one of a few spots in the city where graffiti is legal. It's the perfect example of how graffiti, rather than erasing history, can be used to tell it.

Banksy's sketch of what the sculpture could become
Banksy, famed street artist, gives a similar solution to the problem of the Edward Colster statue in Bristol, England. Let's face it, people are very complicated, and some people who are basically decent human beings are still flawed. Your uncle Fred, for example, may occasionally say racist things out of ignorance. But Uncle Fred would never join the KKK; he knows that's wrong.  There were other people in history, perhaps your great, great, great Uncle Fredrick, who took pride in being a grand wizard for the KKK and he worked tirelessly for segregation. White supremacy was "his thing." See the difference? In the late 1600s, Colster was the deputy governor of the Royal African Company which monopolized slave trade in England. Sure, he had other things going on in his life; he was a member of Parliament and he was also a philanthropist, but his main thing was selling 100,000 people into slavery. So in June of 2020, the people of Bristol toppled the sculpture and put it in the harbor. This was illegal, (*I don't condone illegal activities) but so was toppling the sculpture of King George in New York City after the Declaration of Independence was read. Erasing history? We all know who King George III was and that he lost the colonies in the Revolutionary War. Don't we? Banksy suggests digging the Colster statue out of the harbor and commissioning someone to sculpt the topplers, thereby telling the story of both the 1600s and the 2000 through Art. Interesting idea.

Here are few more things to consider:

The Complexity of the person represented in each monument: Did the good outweigh the bad? Did they repent of their wrongs? What are we remembering them for? Are we taking into account the time and culture from which they come? Are the parts of our heritage we're celebrating truly reflecting our values?

Originality:  Some statues were mass produced, cheaply and are of poor quality. Does this matter?

Intent & context: What objective did the Daughters of the Confederacy, for example, have in commissioning their monuments and when did they erect them? What message did this send to Black citizens? What message did this send to white citizens? Can a plaque contextualizing the reason behind the monument help? Where is an appropriate (if any) place to show these?

Contemporary Perception: Is there a population of Americans who are intimidated or hurt by the message of a monument? Does it mock, minimize, or disregard the reality of a group of citizens?

Remembering: You can't erase history by tearing down monuments and sculptures, because tearing down sculptures (such Lenin, Stalin and Suddam Hussein) is exactly what marked some important turning points in history. Who can forget the fall of the Berlin Wall?  I wonder if sometimes those who are busy making history are  accused of erasing history by those who don't want their status in the present part of history to change. Those who say "History isn't there for you to like or dislike" are right. Some of this dismantling of outdated symbols is part of history, whether we like it our not.

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