Confederate statues and statues of other historical figures, including slave traders and Christopher Columbus, are being toppled throughout the U.S. and around the world this week an outgrowth of weeks of protests over entrenched racism in the United States, reignited by the killing of George Floyd in police custody.
This follows years of debate about public display of Confederate symbols, following the 2015 murder of nine black church congregants in Charleston, S.C., by a Confederate-flag-bearing white supremacist, and the deadly clash in 2017 between white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
The art historian Erin L. Thompson, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has spent her career thinking about what it means when people deliberately destroy icons of cultural heritage. On Thursday, we called her to talk about the statues.
What are the some of the issues that arise when we talk about statues being torn down?
As an art historian I know that destruction is the norm and preservation is the rare exception. We have as humans been making monuments to glorify people and ideas since we started making art, and since we started making statues, other people have started tearing them down. There are statues from the ancient Near East of Assyrian Kings that have curses carved on them that say he who knocks down my statue, let him be in pain for the rest of his life, that sort of thing. And so we know from those, oh, that one strategy of rebellion was knocking down a statue in 2700 B.C.
So its not surprising that we are seeing people rebelling against ideas that are represented by these statues today.
I feel as if the reflexive instinct in the academy for a long time has been to preserve anything that can teach us more about history. Is that not the case?
I think a lot of people assume that since Im an art historian that I would want everything preserved but I know that preservation is expensive. Its expensive literally in that people have to pay for maintaining these statues a couple of journalists in 2018 did an amazing investigation for Smithsonian magazine and found that in the previous ten years, taxpayers had spent at least 40 million dollars preserving Confederate monuments and sites.
And then at U.N.C., when protesters in 2018 tore down the Silent Sam Confederate statue, U.N.C. proposed building a new museum to house it that would cost over 5 million dollars and almost a million dollar a year in ongoing maintenance and security. So I look at these statues as money sinks. And think about all of the amazing sites of African-American history or Native American history that are disintegrating from lack of funding and think those dollars could be better spent elsewhere.
You mentioned that were seeing people rebel against the ideas represented by these statues. Are there other aspects of tearing a statue down that people may not immediately understand or consider?
Throughout history, destroying an image has been felt as attacking the person represented in that image. Which we know because when people attack statues, they attack the parts that would be vulnerable on a human being. We see ancient Roman statues with the eyes gouged out or the ears cut off. Its a very satisfying way of attacking an idea not just by rejecting but humiliating it. So it feels very good in a way that is potentially problematic. Im certainly not advocating for the destruction of all offensive statues in the U.S., in part because its very dangerous. Protesters have already been severely injured tearing down statues.
What do the attacks on statues in recent weeks tell us about the protests themselves?
The current attacks on statues are a sign that whats in question is not just our future but our past, I think, as a nation, as a society, as a world.
These attacks show how deeply white supremacy is rooted in our national structure that we need to question everything about the way we understand the world, even the past, in order to get to a better future.
Whats a statue?
I think a statue is a bid for immortality. Its a way of solidifying an idea and making it present to other people. So that is whats really at issue here. Its not the statues themselves but the point of view that they represent. And these are statues in public places, right? So these are statues claiming that this version of history is the public version of history.
You wrote an encyclopedia entry about the destruction of art in which you wrote that the perceived legitimacy of the destruction of art has changed since antiquity. Can you talk about that a bit?
So lets think about bronze, because many Confederate statues are made out of bronze, which is a metal that you can melt down and make into something else. The ancient Greeks made their major monuments out of bronze. Hardly any of these survived because as soon as regimes changed, as soon as there was war, as soon as someone could steal the statue, it got melted down and made into money or cannon balls or a statue of somebody else.
This is the history of art, of changing loyalties and changing pasts. We have been in a period of peace and prosperity not peace for everybody, but the U.S. hasnt been invaded, weve had enough money to maintain statues. So I think our generation thinks of public art as something that will always be around. But this is a very ahistorical point of view.
What do you make of the comparisons between what protesters in the U.S. are doing and, say, what the Islamic State did in destroying monuments in Palmyra?
I dont think we can say that destruction is always warranted or that destruction is never warranted. We have to think about who is doing the destruction for what purposes. ISIS was destroying monuments of a tolerant past in order to achieve a future of violence and hate. These protesters are attacking symbols of a hateful past as part of fighting for a peaceful future. So I think theyre exactly opposite actions.
And even practically: Look at ISISs destruction of monuments at Palmyra, these Roman temples. The effect of that was to destroy the tourist economy of the modern city of Tadmor, next to Palmyra, which made achieving peace and stability in the region even harder because you now have thousands of people out of a job.
ISIS also raised a lot of money: Their destruction was a propaganda act to get people to make donations to the jihadist cause. They sold antiquities that they stole from the museum of Palmyra in order to conduct war. Its a very different context to what is happening now.
Also, I wish that what is happening now with statues being torn down didnt have to happen this way. But there have been decades of peaceful protest against many of these statues, in many cases before the statues were even erected which have come to nothing. So if people lose hope in the possibility of a peaceful resolution, theyre going to find other means.
You said in a tweet that, when pulling down a statue, a chain works better than a rope. Why?
It has less give, so more of the force of the pull will be directly conveyed to the statue.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
- Immortality or Bust - Film Threat - July 21st, 2020
- Keanu Reeves New Comic Book Is About An Immortal, But Its Not Autobiographical - Comic Years - July 21st, 2020
- Here's how you can win over 83 years of free Netflix service - Retail News Asia - July 21st, 2020
- Meryl Streep's Funniest Movie Characters and Their Best Moments - Showbiz Cheat Sheet - July 21st, 2020
- A Conversation With Director Gina Prince-Bythewood : 1A - NPR - July 21st, 2020
- ATEMS graduation allows Class of 2020 to rise from the ashes of a broken year - Abilene Reporter-News - July 21st, 2020
- Looking at nature, death, and immortality with a famous poet - McDonough Voice - July 17th, 2020
- The Old Guard: Why Andy Loses Her Immortality | Screen Rant - Screen Rant - July 17th, 2020
- Netflixs The Old Guard: A revolutionary, ancient gay romance - Vox.com - July 17th, 2020
- Where father, son correspond - Featured - The Island Now - July 17th, 2020
- Rockfield Studios: Where Ozzy, Oasis, Queen and Coldplay took off - BBC News - July 17th, 2020
- American Vampire by Snyder & Albuquerque returns this October with '70s setting and vibe - GamesRadar+ - July 17th, 2020
- The Old Guard ending explained and sequel news - RadioTimes - July 17th, 2020
- Fun, Guns, and Mum: New Stuff to Watch! - Omaha Reader - July 17th, 2020
- Warrior Nun Ending Explained What Happens to Ava and Adriel at the End of Warrior Nun? - Esquire - July 17th, 2020
- The 8 desires of human life and how to fulfill them - Times Now - July 17th, 2020
- Decade's best No. 1: Loyalsock's baseball team won 2013 PIAA Class AA title in one of state's most exciting finals | News, Sports, Jobs - Williamsport... - July 17th, 2020
- The only shame is that Liverpool brilliance will escape history books - Football365.com - July 17th, 2020
- The Old Guard revs up the senses with great action and fascinating story - culturemap.com - July 17th, 2020
- When There is Despair, There Will Be Hate Too. And That's Not a Bad Thing - The Wire - July 17th, 2020
- The Old Guard's New Trailer Dives Into the Painful Side of Immortality - Gizmodo UK - July 6th, 2020
- Charlize Theron in The Old Guard on Netflix: Film Review - Variety - July 6th, 2020
- Doctor Who Theory: How Rassilon Fits Into The Timeless Child Retcon - Screen Rant - July 6th, 2020
- Its Negligence: Young People Hosting Coronavirus Parties, Betting On Who Gets Infected First - CBS Pittsburgh - July 6th, 2020
- Through a Blur of Migratory Birds, Photographer Sankar Sridhar Captures the Rituals of the Yamuna River - Colossal - July 6th, 2020
- Carli Lloyd: I Want Young Players To Be Inspired By My Journey - Forbes - July 6th, 2020
- Altered Carbon Season 3 : Release Date, Cast, Plot And Other News - Auto Freak - July 6th, 2020
- Madhya Pradeshs new cabinet shows that a slow Congressisation of the BJP is happening - ThePrint - July 6th, 2020
- Batman Beyond Just Brought The Future [SPOILER] Back To Life - Screen Rant - July 6th, 2020
- A battle to defend the soul of football: How Spain achieved immortality at the 2010 World Cup - The Independent - June 17th, 2020
- Dream Team missed date with immortality - The Herald - June 17th, 2020
- Virtual U.S. Open: Palmer, Boros and other challengers - Pro Golf Now - June 17th, 2020
- Health benefits of giloy juice and easy kadha recipes - Times of India - June 17th, 2020
- Where do you want Liverpool to win Premier League title and what do you predict will happen? - Liverpool Echo - June 17th, 2020
- Stephen King Has a Friday the 13th Book He Wants to Write About Jason Voorhees - MovieWeb - June 17th, 2020
- Star Wars Just Wiped Darth Plagueis Backstory From Continuity - We Got This Covered - June 17th, 2020
- Bravery in service of the US | Keizertimes | You think you know. To be sure, read Keizertimes. - Keizertimes - June 17th, 2020
- The Afterlife of George Floyd: A Portfolio by Photographer Eli Reed - The Cut - June 17th, 2020
- American Horror Story: Every Character Who Became The Supreme - Screen Rant - June 17th, 2020
- Why is the 2000s the PBA's forgotten decade? - ESPN - June 17th, 2020
- Guardian: The Lonely and Great God Season 2 What Is The Status Of Renewal? And Is It Cancelled? - Pop Culture Times - June 17th, 2020
- Bihar will get nothing from personal attack on me, focus on real issues: Tejashwi tells BJP, Nitish - Outlook India - June 13th, 2020
- Judd Apatow Tells How the Wallflowers One Headlight Came to Illuminate King of Staten Island: Its Personal - Variety - June 13th, 2020
- NOS4A2 Viewing Guide: What You Need to Know Going into Season 2 - Anglophenia - June 13th, 2020
- How racism revealed the fragility of an entire sport - Majorca Daily Bulletin - June 13th, 2020
- Book World: Those who built the bomb, those who used it and those who survived it - Alton Telegraph - June 13th, 2020
- Bahrain king pardons 16 jailed OFWs; 11 deported to PH - UNTV News - UNTV News - June 13th, 2020
- Netflix Said No to Streaming Tommy Wiseau's The Room - MovieWeb - June 13th, 2020
- Dinosaur toys and golf clubs: the strange things astronauts take to the moon - The Guardian - June 13th, 2020
- Copa America: Will 12-month delay enhance Messi and Argentina's chances of glory? - Yahoo! Voices - June 13th, 2020
- 10 Inspirational Quotes by Swami Vivekananda For a Life of Freedom And Tranquility - India.com - June 13th, 2020
- Does Thanos Have Superpowers (WITHOUT Infinity Stones)? - Screen Rant - June 13th, 2020
- Kansas City Chiefs Who Could Be Future Hall of Famers (Part 2) - Chiefs Digest - June 13th, 2020
- The Eternals When Can We Expect It In Theatres? What Leaks Are Coming And What Are New Updates? - Pop Culture Times - June 13th, 2020
- Less than zero: how Pointlesss tweaked finale made fools of us all - The Guardian - May 25th, 2020
- Erling Braut Haaland is Robert Lewandowski's heir apparent we have been waiting for - The National - May 25th, 2020
- A zombie apocalypse, a surprise hook-up, and brutal deaths in the latest Legends of Tomorrow - SYFY WIRE - May 25th, 2020
- Star Wars Confirms DEATH Affects Sith and Jedi the Same - in One KEY Way - CBR - Comic Book Resources - May 25th, 2020
- They fought and died, and we remember - The Register-Guard - May 24th, 2020
- Grafite: The Tale of One of the Bundesliga's Greatest Ever One-Season Wonders - 90min - May 24th, 2020
- The last days of history - Part 13Sunday Magazine - Guardian - May 24th, 2020
- 'Henry tried every day to be the best' - Vela says Jordan's Last Dance documentary conjured memories of Arsenal icon - Goal.com - May 24th, 2020
- Elliott Mortuary to host events in Madisonville | Local News - The Messenger - May 24th, 2020
- Read this before you watch The Old Guard - Looper - May 24th, 2020
- 10 New Switch Titles Releasing This Week - SwitchWatch - May 24th, 2020
- From the archives: CSM wins first Nor Cal title - San Mateo Daily Journal - May 24th, 2020
- David Charters: Grumbling oil boiler offers thoughts of immortality - Liverpool Echo - April 11th, 2020
- Hope Is an Important Part of Judaism | Bob Ryan - The Times of Israel - April 11th, 2020
- Teen paperboy with vampire obsession ripped elderly woman's heart out and drank her blood to be immortal - MEAWW - April 11th, 2020
- Lactomeda: the future of humanity | Science - The Union Journal - April 11th, 2020
- Westworld Season 3 Has Almost the Same Plot as Captain America: The Winter Soldier - The Mary Sue - April 11th, 2020
- 21st Century Westerns: The Alamo - Cowboys and Indians - April 11th, 2020
- Last Witch Hunter 2: Vin Diesel Hints Script Is Being Worked On Now - Screen Rant - April 11th, 2020
- Remembering two members of the Marin music community - Marin Independent Journal - April 11th, 2020
- The Nike Adidas Puma Olympic Battle Will Have to Wait - Barron's - March 26th, 2020
- Christ Provides the Antidote to Fear Amid Coronavirus - National Catholic Register - March 26th, 2020
- The Vampire Diaries: The 10 Most Hated Storylines | ScreenRant - Screen Rant - March 26th, 2020
- Today's Gospel in Art - The Annunciation of the Lord - Independent Catholic News - March 26th, 2020
- Doctor Who: The Top 10 Tenth Doctor Episodes, Ranked According to IMDb - Screen Rant - March 26th, 2020
- 48 SECONDS FROM IMMORTALITY: The story of the 1990 Concord Minutemen - Goshen News - March 24th, 2020