Recently, there has been controversy about statues remaining up. Not only confederate statues but also statues like Winston Churchill, Cecil Rhodes, and many others. These statues have had their strident defenders, as well. Yet, from my perspective the purpose of statues is aesthetic more than commemorative. Instead of focusing the bulk of our statues on historical figures, the statues we erect should be works of art of, mostly, fictional, mythical, archetypal, or generic figures. Statues, as art, are meant to convey messages like art. Instead of Winston Churchill, a statue of a romanticized British private or of a glorious Britannia slaying Thor.
Statues of historical figures themselves contribute to an archaic “Great Man” telling of history. That history is the saga of kings and generals rather than trends and ideas. The defense of the statues that they are our history doesn’t work not only because that’s not only how people learn history but because history is not the biographies of juggernauts, it is a sociological complexity that should be represented by things more abstract and universal than individual humans. Winston Churchill, for all his vices and virtues, did not win WWII, the corpses and veterans of Stalingrad and Normandy won the war. Whether or not Churchill was a racist is beside the point, I’d just as well leave the non-confederate statues up and don’t really care.
Yet, the bronze and marble with which statues are crafted are a canvas with which to represent history in ways that require much more creativity. For instance, here in Charleston, they are going to bring down John Calhoun’s statue in Marion Square. I support that but I want the statue replaced with something that sends, not only an anti-racist or neutral message, but a timeless and positive message. Personally, I would support an angel. Charleston is known as “The Holy City”. Furthermore, the angel should be an intentionally created legend. A classic Southern belle named Cecelia from the 1930’s who supported progressive politics but was cut down young by vigilantes angry with her only to come back as a ghost who still protects the weak of this city. Forever known as Saint Cecelia (after Charleston’s Saint Cecelia Society)
Legends have more poetry than reality which is why they should be used more than reality. They represent a truth that the mortal world cannot. Art represents deeper values than the atoms and quarks that make earth. The statues of historical figures, mostly, aggrandize people rather than convey the values and messages that art is supposed to. Other than that, statues are aesthetic and contribute to the beauty of a setting. Statues are not meant to teach history. This is not a call to take down statues but to rethink the philosophy of statues and what they exist to do. Statues currently are plagued with what Plato noted in his observations about ideal forms. They don’t exist in nature. To represent concepts with fallen mortals will inevitably result in disappointment. Are fleshy heroes on close examination are mere humans with mistakes and flaws. Abstract concepts and emotions can represented by things other than literally historical figures and that avoids most of the issues.