We value works of art, whether by Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Rothko, or Rosie Lee Tomkins, for both personal and historical reasons.
Artworks are the products of an individual person's labor and the expression of this person's personality and style. Certain art, also, appeals to us, individually.
Artworks also stand as historical evidence; they are artifacts of the conditions when and where they were put together. When an artwork is destroyed, we lose not only our knowledge of an individual artist — but also our relation to the past is changed.
The reality is different, though, when it comes to monuments.
Monuments — as a general rule — obscure the conditions of their own production; they redirect our attention to the person or event they memorialize.
Observers don't generally view the monument thinking about the artists. Do you know, for example, the name of the artist responsible for the Lincoln Memorial, or for the monument to Robert E. Lee in park in Charlottesville, Va., in the news this month? More often, they are thinking about who or what it memorializes.
In addition, monuments are often constructed years after said event happens or said hero lived. One might be surprised to learn that both the Lincoln Memorial and Charlottesville's monument to Robert E. Lee went up about 60 years after the end of the Civil War.
The curious thing about monuments — Vanderbilt University art historian Matthew Worsnick told me — is that it is almost as if they "slip into an archival box; they are treated as if they were a kind of evidence or relic of their subjects."
When, of course, they aren't. Not really.
The memorials to Robert E. Lee and Lincoln are very much the product of their own real time and place. The Civil War may have ended in 1865. But it is probably no accident that the Robert E. Lee statue in question went up in 1922, at the height of "Jim Crow," or that the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated two years later.
But it is the distinct power of memorials — it is their point, really — that they obscure their partisan and parochial origins. In Worsnick's words: "Memorials often skew the timeline, they muddy the historical waters. They do this through a tendency to conceal the circumstances of their own production."
To destroy a Leonardo is to hurt Leonardo's legacy, and to damage our grasp on his historical situation. But to destroy a monument to Robert E. Lee is to hurt his legacy, not that of the responsible artist — and it is to alter our felt relation to his time and place, rather than the time and place of the manufacture of his memorial.
There are all sorts of exceptions to these generalizations, and there may be all manner of ambiguities.
The Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, in Washington, for all that it is a memorial, is actually very much associated with Maya Lin, its creator — for example. And sometimes a memorial is truly a relic of that for which it stands as a memorial. Take, as an example, the Sarajevo Roses — scars created by mortar fire that were later filled in with red resin. The scars themselves actually date back to the siege of 1992-1995.
What is the upshot of these considerations for the ongoing debate about memorials to the Confederacy?
First, we must own up to the fact that the decision to let a monument stand — no less than the decision to take it down — is to take a stand on the subject matter of the monument. If you believe, as I do, that Robert E. Lee was a friend of slavery and an enemy of the United States of America, then the case for removing monuments to him is a strong one.
Second, there is no reason to fear that tearing down such monuments will, or could, cause us to forget. The monuments are not and never have been relics of those bygone days. They carry no information about the past they are used to symbolize, only about our own reverential attitude to that past. And that's a reverential attitude it's time to change, in this case.
Third, we must distinguish the objects — the actual statues — from their function as monuments. You can preserve the objects — the art and our felt relation to times past — without conserving their negative symbolic functions on public grounds. There are memorial parks in Moscow and Budapest, for example, where old Soviet monuments to Stalin and Lenin have been put on display.
If you think there are good reasons to preserve these reminders our national history — that we once thought it useful to create the monument — this can be done without keeping them in force as monuments.