Half-Measures of Commission Fall Short

Posted January 12, 2018 8:06 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — We live in a culture of digital now-ness, twitter-surfing, trivia bingeing — which has become a culture of not-knowing history. I became acutely aware of the imbalance at the time of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. Suddenly, there history was — an old history of American racism and nativism — speaking to the present loud and clear.

The rally was built around a single object: an equestrian monument to Confederate leader and Civil War hero Robert E. Lee. A small alt-right army had gathered to protest its threatened removal by the city from a public park. Probably no one had given the statue a serious glance for years. But the alt-right had, and understood its power, which lay in its twofold history. This sculpture represented the Civil War, but it was of a later date. It was made in 1924, when a brew of Lost Cause nostalgia and resurgent racist anger was saturating the South. In that context, the image of Lee was both a memorial to the past and the standard for a white supremacist future.

The Charlottesville rally was, as it was meant to be, explosive. And in the aftershock came a wave of monument-fever. In Charlottesville itself, anti-right protesters pulled down and smashed a second Confederate statue. In the same week, in Baltimore, Maryland, on an order from city hall, workmen hoisted four Confederate statues onto flatbed trucks and drove them off into the night.

The iconoclastic impulse spread north to New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to review a number of controversial monuments, not necessarily Civil War-related, that stood on city property. He called together a group of historians and artists together to take on the task. And this week, the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers — led by Tom Finkelpearl, New York City cultural affairs commissioner, and Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation — released a statement of the group’s findings.

It’s a very by-committee document; measured, all-bases-covered, weighted with consensus, short on surprise. If anything could bring a fever down, this could. It lists a set of wide-angle questions the commission applies in making judgments. If monuments have the power to write history, who, in any given case, is wielding that power? Was the history true when written, and has that truth changed over time? Does the history serve positive or negative ends? Promote inclusion or divisiveness? If monuments are, like history, intrinsically complex, not easily defined as “right” or “wrong,” is complexity alone enough to justify a contested monument’s continuing presence?

After the questions, and a group vote, come suggestions for actions the mayor can take. He can let a monument stand as is; re-contextualize it through added signage or programming; move it to another public site, such as a museum; change or expand its meaning by adding new art; or remove it from view. (Destroying is not an option, and in my opinion should never be.)

Of the four monuments the commission considered, all of them of sustained contention in the city, only one, an 1894 statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims (1813-1883) on Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street, will be sent into exile. A South Carolina slave-owner and physician, Sims did pioneering work in gynecological surgery, but performed many of his experiments on black female slaves, and using no anesthesia. His statue, which has long faced East Harlem and roiled its residents, will be moved to the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where he’s buried.

If full justice were done we’d also be seeing the last of a plaque, installed near Wall Street, inscribed with the name of Marshal Philippe Pétain, leader of the French Vichy government, a Nazi collaborator responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews. Back in August, De Blasio had said that this would be one of the first monuments to go. Instead, on a technicality, Pétain will stick around. His plaque is one of more than 200 that make up a public project called Canyon of Heroes commemorating the history of ticker-tape parades in lower Manhattan. The committee decided that because the project was documentary, and Pétain’s parade was early in 1931, his name could stay, though the Canyon of Heroes title had to go. The other two items on the commission’s list are more complicated and have been subject to intense public scrutiny. The Christopher Columbus monument at Columbus Circle has long been a focus of protest for its historical association with the genocide of indigenous Americans. Yet it was erected, in part, to counteract a later persecution on New World soil, this one against Italian-American immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Addition, rather than subtraction, was the prescribed move by the mayor’s commission. This includes leaving the statue of Columbus untouched but installing a new monument, dedicated to Native American cultures, nearby. (The Department of Cultural Affairs says it will commit up to $10 million over the next four years to create new permanent artwork across the city honoring unrepresented communities.) Recommendations also call for adding an indigenous peoples’ day to the city calendar; and mapping the histories of under-acknowledged populations. Such a mapping project was, in fact, started as early as 1989 by a group of artists and writers under the name REPOhistory.

The big news many people were waiting for was what would become of the often-criticized 1939 bronze equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt by James Earle Fraser in front of the American Museum of Natural History. Disappointingly, the commission’s decision is, in effect, to make no decision. Roosevelt is a complicated figure, they say — indeed, he was an environmentalist as well as a devotee of eugenics. The 10-foot-high sculpture can be read many ways.

But whatever those readings may be, the problem with the image, a problem directly related to our awareness of white male supremacism in the present, is obvious at a glance. Roosevelt sits mounted high on a horse. Flanking him at stirrup level are two half-nude standing figures, one “African,” the other “American Indian,” who, like porters, carry his rifles. It doesn’t require a sensitivity to subtexts to see that the composition, no matter how you gloss it, is quite literally an emblem of white-man-on-top. Endless generations of kids on their way into the museum will see the image and think such hierarchy is OK, even — as Roosevelt may well have felt — natural. But while the commission — unable to reach a consensus — finesses the problem by consigning the work to the “complexity” slot, certain other groups in the recent past have taken judgment into their own hands. In a 2016 protest, some 200 activists operating under a collective named Decolonize This Place temporarily shrouded the statue with a black parachute. Last fall, a collective called Monument Removal Brigade spattered its base with blood-red paint. And, in general, over the years objections to the monument by citizen groups were strong. And this citizen says either put a truth-telling sign on the sculpture, accounting for at least some of its political meaning, now and then, or get it gone.

Basically, in the end, the commission takes a pass on three out of the four items on their docket, and sets history behind a protective screen of educational outreach and programming, initiatives that all too easily blend into the great, perspectiveless digital wash of the present.

But, with luck, rather than neutralizing the agitation that has gathered around these monuments, the committee’s measured — which is to say, half-measured — decisions will encourage it, get activist blood boiling again. This is good. These days, when we need to be as politically alert as possible, anything that gets us into the street, and keeps the reality-check called history in sight, is healthy.