The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Philadelphia, a monument to end all monuments

Artist Theaster Gates uses empty plinths to challenge our culture of hero worship

Theaster Gates, “Monument in Waiting,” 2020, at Drexel University. (Theaster Gates Studio/Photograph by David Evan McDowell/Courtesy Philadelphia Contemporary)

PHILADELPHIA — When a statue of Saddam Hussein was torn from its plinth in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in 2003, something odd happened. As a U.S. Marine Corps vehicle helped pull it down, the statue groaned, bent and buckled, revealing two sturdy support rods inside what had been its legs. They were an odd sight, mechanical viscera never meant to be seen, now exposed to the world. It was a bit like seeing the human hand stuffed up a puppet’s backside.

At the time, it reminded me of an old saying: “No man is a hero to his valet.” A sculpture installation in Philadelphia called “Monument in Waiting,” created in 2020 by artist Theaster Gates, inspires similar thoughts. It is prosaic stuff: four empty statue plinths arranged with no obvious sense of order in a nondescript public square on the campus of Drexel University. Two of the stone bases are rectangular and look a bit like coffins. Another is a round pillar, lying on its side, as if toppled by vandals. The fourth is perpendicular and oblong and looks like it should support the sort of sculpture one might find in the manicured garden of a one-percenter.

The only clue to this seemingly accidental concatenation of stones are nine words lightly carved into one of the blocks: “Until real heroes bloom, this dusty plinth will wait.” Taken literally, this is a comment on our public life, on the lack of genuine heroes suitable for memorialization on plinths like these.

But it’s hard to take literally. The words have a mock solemnity to them, as if poking fun at the pomposity of 19th-century inscriptions and memorials. And they don’t really make much sense. Do heroes bloom? And do plinths left out of doors get dusty?

In Richmond, the monuments came down, and history flourished

One common thread of discourse in our new-age iconoclasm is: We memorialized the wrong people and should substitute more fitting heroes. Take down images of Robert E. Lee and replace them with Frederick Douglass. But Gates’s sculpture seems to go further, to cast skepticism not just on the heroes of the past, but the possibility of heroes for the future. It tacitly asks us to consider, what is a real hero?

Everything about the work underscores a deep sense of anti-monumentality. It is surrounded by buildings in which architecture seems to have been an afterthought. On a hot day this summer, one could have the sculpture entirely to oneself. Nearby, standing on a nearly 10-foot-tall base, a larger-than-life-size statue of Anthony Drexel, the university’s founder and namesake, offers contrast. He sits on a regal chair, looking down at the world over his left shoulder, with a clutch of rolled-up papers in his hand. The gaze feels imperious, but it’s also hard to tell: He lives so far above the ordinary viewer that one gets a firm sense only of his body language, at ease, commanding and intense.

In Times Square, a monumentally scaled, heroic statue is unveiled

Is this a real hero? Drexel, a phenomenally wealthy and influential financier, wasn’t the most infamous of the Robber Barons by any means, and he is hardly a household name. In its own peculiar way, the Drexel statue feels anti-monumental, too. To use a word borrowed from Gates’s sculpture, it is “dusty,” a marker of history that has little presence in living memory and must be accessed through books, study or research.

Among the telling details of “Monument in Waiting” are the signs that these statue bases were once inhabited. There are holes drilled into the top and the pentimento outline of where the displaced sculpture once stood. This gives them the same sense of being undressed, caught in an embarrassing moment of revelation, like the toppled statue of Saddam Hussein.

No man is a hero to his valet. Consider it another way of saying, no one is a hero, if we look close enough. That may seem a radical thought, given how reflexively we believe we need heroes, for moral guidance, inspiration and civil harmony. But heroes are bad for history, bad for truth, bad for the moral progress of a community or nation. They are frozen moments of adulation that generally shut down thinking. And while not every idol will show its clay feet, it seems almost all of them eventually do, if we look hard enough and with honesty.

We are beginning to see what it might be like to live in a post-monument age. In Richmond, the odious tributes to Confederate leaders on Monument Avenue came down, and the city continues with no grave perturbance to civic life. Indeed, it seems history is flourishing there anew. We may eventually come to the conclusion that rather than replacing old and ugly monuments, we should simply be done with them.

That would be a steppingstone to the more radical implication of Gates’s “Monument in Waiting,” which is a world beyond heroes.

And what would take the place of heroes, and all the dusty monuments to them? What energies might substitute for those once spent on hero worship? Love and self-governance, the two most heroic things the species is capable of doing.