Guest Post: Francis Morrone, Fugitive Thoughts on the Great Statue Controversy

Introductory Note

I posted my thoughts on the removal of sculptures back in September, as “Politics and Portrait Sculptures.” At around the same time Bill de Blasio formed the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers to consider the possible removal of some New York City sculptures. (An online survey is here.) I recently posted G.A. Mudge’s testimony at the Commission’s hearing, and thoughts on public sculpture from Zenos Frudakis and Quent Cordair.  I’m delighted to have Francis Morrone weigh in as well.

Standard disclaimer: the views and opinions expressed in this guest post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect my own; nor does his appearance on this blog imply that he agrees with all my opinions.

Francis Morrone

Francis Morrone is an architectural historian and an historian of public art, and the author of eleven books. He will be delivering a series of four lectures on the history of public art at the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art on Wednesdays from March 14 to April 4, 2018. (Details here.)

How many of the great statues of Europe would have to be taken down if we were to apply present standards of “political correctness” to their subjects? The thought that charges based on such standards might lead to the removal of a Marcus Aurelius from the Campidoglio, or of an Erasmo da Narni from the Piazza del Santo, boggles the mind.

Of course, political passions have led to the toppling of many statues, such as Bouchardon’s Louis XV in the Place de la Concorde, and Joseph Wilton’s George III in Bowling Green. Statues tumbled down when the Soviet Union ceased to be, and when Saddam Hussein was deposed. And groups like the Taliban make great sport of destroying artworks that offend Taliban sensibilities. But in the civilized West of the 21st century, it had seemed to many of us that we were beyond such fatuities. And we were wrong in so thinking.

Since the 1980s, the legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon’s version of the philosopher J.L. Austin’s “speech act” theory has swept through academia and become an ineluctable part of the mental equipment of many young people. According to this version of speech act theory, it is not only physical blows–punches or kicks or gunshots–that cause pain and debility, but psychic blows as well, whose toll is said by some to be as damaging as physical blows. Psychic blows come in the form of speech–words and symbols. The very utterance of a string of words, because it may cause pain and suffering, may need to be forbidden, just as acts of physical violence are forbidden. For example, the Canadian professor who, in a momentarily celebrated case from 2011, offered “All Jews should be sterilized” as an example of unacceptable speech, was accused by a student of anti-Semitism. The student said “The words ‘Jews should be sterilized’ still came out of his mouth, so regardless of the context I still think that’s pretty serious.” The context is irrelevant, just as it would be if the professor had said “One will not be permitted to do this” and then punched a student in the face. This is an extreme, even farcical, example, I admit, and online commentators universally pilloried the then 22-year-old student, who to my knowledge has never backed down from her outrage. But an extreme example of this sort does in fact show what’s at stake. Those who advocate, as I do, that the best thing to do is to put a sign next to the statue explaining the controversy, but leave the statue standing, advocate nothing that will remotely assuage the aggrieved.

That is why we can talk all we want about the need not to remove important reminders of our often painful history from, not just public ground, but our consciousness, and yet not address this problem as those who made it a problem are addressing it. For to the latter it is all about “speech acts,” about the pain and discomfiture that is caused, or presumed to be caused. I say “presumed to be caused,” for even proponents of speech act theory would have to agree that these effects ought to be empirically measurable. But to measure such effects would be cumbersome and take a great deal of time (rather like establishing the validity of nutritional claims), and so a kind of precautionary principle comes into play: Better remove the statues now rather than take the risk that such measurements may show harm. If such measurements were to show no harm, well, then, all we’ve done is remove a few statues that served little purpose anyway.

And that’s where I think we may step in and say: The costs of removing the statues are potentially every bit as great as the costs of keeping them. And this brings us back to Europe and the preposterous notion that a statue by, say, Donatello may be removed from a public place because its subject has been deemed to cause pain in some people. The sculptures in public places in European cities and towns give to those places every bit as much of the character that draws us to them as does the architecture. So it is in New York: If our statues are deemed so expendable, then someone has truly failed to explain their good qualities, their artistry and craftsmanship and the role they play in the making of civilized environments. Most of the people clamoring for statues’ removal are utterly blind to these qualities. And it’s the culture that views “public art” as temporary “installations” by Jeff Koons and Kara Walker and, yes, even Ai Weiwei (not that these are necessarily without merit), as much as it is speech act theory, that has led us to this impasse. So too the fact that we moderns have, by living so much of our lives in virtual worlds, so devalued the physical realm that very few people indeed would much care if, for instance, the equestrian General Sherman—a supreme masterpiece of American art—were to be junked. This is a cultural tragedy, and it is absolutely part of the context of these present controversies.

In my view, the slippery slope celebrated by the writer J.C. Hallman in his recent Harper’s essay supporting the removal of the statue of Dr. James Marion Sims [see “Monumental Error:
Will New York City finally tear down a statue?” from Harper’s, Nov. 2017] is very, very dangerous indeed if it were to extend, as well it might, to the masterpieces of, say, Augustus Saint-Gaudens or John Quincy Adams Ward, sculptors in the first rank of artists that America has ever produced, and who stand with the greatest artists of their time from anywhere in the world. (Is Ward’s Indian Hunter an act of cultural appropriation? Was George Washington a monster?) Indeed, the Columbus Monument in Columbus Circle, a work by an Italian sculptor, Gaetano Russo, is such a masterpiece. A beautiful rostral column with relief carvings at its base and rather a majestic marble statue of Christopher Columbus at its top, it’s as perfect an urban accent as the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square. It is the sort of civic adornment without which a city is aesthetically impoverished.

Some, including deputy mayor Melissa Mark-Viverito, have called for the removal of the Columbus Monument. Some Italian-Americans strongly and vociferously object. (Never mind their pain and discomfiture!) This won’t end happily. I myself agree that Columbus was not someone whom we should mindlessly venerate. The master mariners who piloted sailing ships through uncharted seas in the 15th and 16th centuries were madmen, and bullies, and sons of bitches. No one else would conceivably have taken on the jobs that they did. Among their parties might be those of more pacific temperament–a Bartolomé de Las Casas, for example. But the boss was an ogre. To the extent that we think it was right for Europeans to fan out across the globe (and of course right-thinking academicians hold generally to the view that it was an historical disaster), then men like Columbus were necessary. To remove Columbus is to say “I am sorry Europeans ever crossed the ocean.” But Europeans did, and the monument commemorates that astonishing fact. Are we, so as not to offend ourselves and others, to forbear to acknowledge the fact? If so, at what point does even our school history curriculum cease even to commit the speech act of naming Columbus?

More to the point for me, the unregenerate aesthete, what is the point at which we say we have so much beauty in our cities that the loss of the Columbus Monument, or, heck, of Donatello’s Gattamelata, means nothing? Dr. Sims may not be a great work of art. That I readily concede. But the slope is slippery indeed. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s marvelous Peter Stuyvesant, in Stuyvesant Square, has come under fire, and so has James Earle Fraser’s equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, and so has Thérèse Dreaming by Balthus. And these are early days yet. How long before calls to get rid of any number of other works?

By all means put up a sign that says “Many of your fellow citizens, maybe even you yourself, believe Columbus was a genocidal maniac. This statue was erected by your forebears who did not view things the way many people today do. Discuss.”

Alas, that won’t cut it for the passionate haters of statues. I have no hope of an amicable resolution to this conflict. The Taliban are among us.


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