Younge, Gary: Why every single statue should come down

Gary Younge

Why every single statue should come down‘, The Guardian (UK), 1 June 2021 updated (associated podcast; also in hard copy of The Guardian Weekly, 11 June 2021)

‘Statues of historical figures are lazy, ugly and distort history’, says Younge, former journalist and now academic. ‘From Cecil Rhodes to Rosa Parks, let’s get rid of them all.’

This long read is an excellent exposition of not just the statue removal issue, but the ‘cancel culture’ furphy, and the idea that history is immutable and cannot be rewritten (rather than being the subject of repeated evidence-based reinterpretation). Rusted-on readers of the Honest History output will know that these have been themes of ours since we began in 2013.

In Britain, we seem to have a peculiar fixation with statues, as we seek to petrify historical discourse, lather it in cement, hoist it high and insist on it as a permanent statement of fact, culture, truth and tradition that can never be questioned, touched, removed or recast. This statue obsession mistakes adulation for history, history for heritage and heritage for memory. It attempts to detach the past from the present, the present from morality, and morality from responsibility. In short, it attempts to set our understanding of what has happened in stone, beyond interpretation, investigation or critique.

But history is not set in stone. It is a living discipline, subject to excavation, evolution and maturation. Our understanding of the past shifts. Our views on women’s suffrage, sexuality, medicine, education, child-rearing and masculinity are not the same as they were 50 years ago, and will be different again in another 50 years. But while our sense of who we are, what is acceptable and what is possible changes with time, statues don’t. They stand, indifferent to the play of events, impervious to the tides of thought that might wash over them and the winds of change that swirl around them – or at least they do until we decide to take them down …

I think it is a good thing that so many of these statues of pillagers, plunderers, bigots and thieves have been taken down. I think they are offensive. But I don’t think they should be taken down because they are offensive. I think they should be taken down because I think all statues should be taken down.

Here, to be clear, I am talking about statues of people, not other works of public memorials such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, the Holocaust memorial in Berlin or the Famine memorial in Dublin. I think works like these serve the important function of public memorialisation, and many have the added benefit of being beautiful.

The same cannot be said of statues of people. I think they are poor as works of public art and poor as efforts at memorialisation. Put more succinctly, they are lazy and ugly …

[Statues] are among the most fundamentally conservative – with a small c – expressions of public art possible. They are erected with eternity in mind – a fixed point on the landscape. Never to be moved, removed, adapted or engaged with beyond popular reverence. Whatever values they represent are the preserve of the establishment.

And there’s much more in this excellent article. Recommended.

Update 9 July 2021: An Australian perspective from Jane Lydon and Zoe Laidlaw in The Conversation.



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