Kirk Savage: What Kind Of Monuments Do We Want?
“Each time we pass by, the monument tacitly calls for a choice: do we accept and obey its supremacy, or do we reject and resist it?”
Last month, at the end of June, the City of New York and the American Museum of Natural History decided to remove a statue of Theodore Roosevelt, astride a horse and trailed by two figures carrying his guns, a Plains Indian warrior and an African man, from the museum's Central Park West entrance. Describing the statue, art historian Kirk Savage writes, “Conquered and pacified, these two peoples, [representing the subordinate peoples of the North American continent,] now march quietly with the white hero to assist him in his next challenge of discovery and conquest.” The Museum's decision was based on this “hierarchical composition” and the legacies of violence, colonialism, and racism it implicitly upholds.
While yet to be physically taken down, the Roosevelt statue joins a growing list of monuments — glorifications and endorsements of, memorials to white supremacy in the American landscape— that have been diligently removed or joyously toppled as of late, fueled by the uprisings for racial justice. On view since 1940 (on former Lenape territory), the Roosevelt statue was long a target of protests by Indigenous and activist groups.
Recent protests go back to October of 2016 when the group Decolonize This Place organized the first Anti-Columbus Day tour inside the museum with the participation of other social justice movements and shrouded the statue with a parachute. A year later, members of the Monument Removal Brigade splashed the sculpture’s base with blood-red paint, and released this powerful statement in conjunction: “Now the statue is bleeding. We did not make it bleed. It is bloody at its very foundation. This is not an act of vandalism. It is a work of public art and an act of applied art criticism. We have no intent to damage a mere statue. The true damage lies with patriarchy, white supremacy, and settler-colonialism embodied by the statue. It is these forms of oppression that must be damaged again and again…until they are damaged out of existence.”
In 2017, we invited Savage to write an essay for More Art In The Public Eye about public art and American imperialism — so an essay about war and trauma and myth-making and memory. As Savage rightly notes, “The US has been at war for centuries with whole peoples inside its borders — particularly those represented by the two bronze figures beneath Teddy Roosevelt. How could the long war by the US against indigenous and black people fail to wreak trauma on their descendant communities?” The choice, he goes on, to monumentalize, to memorialize is always an active one. What then, and who, do monuments reflect? What role does socially engaged public art have in representing and perhaps restructuring the American experience? Excerpted below, part of this critical, ongoing discussion, is Savage’s essay “Against Heroism.”
On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed a packed audience at Riverside Church, in New York. His speech that day forever changed his legacy: appalled by the US’ military intervention in Vietnam, he took to the pulpit to draw together the decades-old civil rights movement with the much newer antiwar movement. In the process he put these two powerful social movements in common cause against “a far deeper malady within the American spirit” and toward what he called “a radical revolution of values.”¹
“Our only hope today,” he declared, “lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.’”
The war King assailed in Riverside Church ended some eight years later, in a defeat for the US, but the nation’s commitment to warfare has not abated since then. King’s three interconnected evils — poverty, racism, and militarism — continue to plague the world. And not surprisingly, these evils inhabit the status quo of public art in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Their historical traces are etched into the public art landscape across the US, where they are commemorated, condoned, excused, and even celebrated. Nearly everywhere we turn, monuments, museums, plaques, and art donations honor slave owners, robber barons, Indian fighters, conquistadors, and imperialists.
These are the men who were chosen to model American citizenship and heroism. Sometimes they were conscripted unwillingly: Robert E. Lee argued against Confederate monuments and believed that the memory of the war should be obliterated. Monumental heroes, as Nietzsche once argued, are wrenched from their actual histories and made to stand on their own. But this does not happen by some kind of natural process. In virtually every case, public monuments are raised by white elites who attach their own present-day agendas to supposed heroes abstracted from history. To erect a monument in public space takes power and authority. The monuments themselves defend that power and justify that authority.
Because these heroes were monumentalized — made of “imperishable” materials so as to become “timeless” in their seats of honor — their legacy continues to dominate us. Their monuments do not function as mere signs in the landscape, like billboards and storefronts competing for attention. The heroic monument’s exalted status demands more of us, asking for our allegiance, our respect. Each time we pass by, the monument tacitly calls for a choice: do we accept and obey its supremacy, or do we reject and resist it?
In this one-sided version of the public realm, the stories of the peoples who resisted these would-be heroes have had little, if any, space. Those who have struggled against slavery, displacement, and erasure have found little room in the landscape of monumental history. While that has begun to change, we still have a long way to go before we see the mountains brought low and the valleys exalted.
Wars against internal and external enemies are the great engines that have created most of the world’s monuments. It is little wonder that the heroic landscape of public art that still surrounds us amounts to a gaping intergenerational wound. Those who are scorned and marginalized in this landscape suffer terrible consequences. Even those it honors often have their own unrecognized traumas brought on by the violence and dehumanization that is the business of war.
In the twenty-first century, public art has an important role to play in remediating the heroic landscape and repairing its wounds. We often hear that the answer is to make new heroes and new monuments, to replace one set of icons with another. But another answer is to break with monumentality altogether, and with its reigning illusion of timelessness.
Ephemerality has become a new mode for artists seeking meaningful connection with communities that have been marginalized and ignored in the public realm. In one sense this alternative mode of public address simply faces facts: communities themselves are always shifting and transforming as their needs and politics change. In another sense the mode is intrinsically political, resisting monumentality’s relentless ambition to perpetuate the existing social order and to justify or hide its inequities.
1. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” at https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/beyond-vietnam.
Kirk Savage is the Dietrich Professor of History of Art & Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. He has written extensively on public monuments, militarism, and social justice. He is the author of two prizewinning books, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (2009) and Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (1997), and is the editor of The Civil War in Art and Memory (2016), for the National Gallery of Art series Studies in the History of Art. In 2016 he was awarded the Public Art Dialogue Award for Achievement in Public Art, given annually to an individual whose contributions have greatly influenced public art practice. He is currently collaborating with his wife Elizabeth Thomas on a book about the long battle to save a Cherokee homeland in North Carolina, a project that seeks to decolonize the frontier paradigms and family histories that have long shaped this story in mainstream memory and history.
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