This debate, between traditional memorials, which conveyed a basic message of honor, and “living” memorials, which served a social need, was effectively won by the industry that was most vested in the outcome — the companies that designed, built and installed monuments and memorials. It was a booming trade in the first decades of the 20th century, when municipalities were also buying and erecting Civil War memorials, many of them dedicated to racist men who fought their own country to preserve the evil of slavery.
Now that protests over the death of George Floyd and police brutality against African Americans have built momentum to finally take down Confederate statues, it’s worth thinking anew about the value of living memorials, and why so little of our mad fetish for public memorialization has been devoted to them. Could we rethink not just the whom and what we seek to venerate, but also evolve beyond the need for traditional memorials and monuments altogether?
It’s particularly important now, because one essential idea that helps keep these sinister monuments to men like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in the public square is the fear that, somehow, we can’t live without them. Even people who might not particularly admire Confederate leaders, who might agree that it is beyond bizarre that the United States has named so many of its military bases for men who took up arms against their own people, feel a horror vacui, an anxiety about the possible vacuum in public space if the plinths and pedestals are emptied, and our parks denuded of their visual focal points.
That fear is particularly keen in places where the impulse to memorialization was most intense, in architectural and design projects such as Richmond’s Monument Avenue, which includes memorials to Lee, Jackson, the Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has called for the removal of the Lee statue, while protesters tore down the statue of Davis — who argued vehemently and often that African Americans were an inferior race “fitted expressly for servitude” — from the base of a giant column topped by an allegorical figure representing vindication, the essence of the Lost Cause apologia for Southern bigotry.
Monument Avenue is the most extensive and elaborate fusion of Lost Cause racism and urban design in the United States. The project took decades to build, beginning with the Lee memorial in 1890 and continuing through the height of Jim Crow-era white panic; it was still being amended with the addition of a statue to African American tennis great Arthur Ashe in 1996, a welcome but vastly insufficient symbolic gesture toward recasting the avenue’s legacy of hate. The beauty of the divided street, its gracious width, its trees and its accompanying domestic architecture — including many grand homes built in the implicitly racist neocolonial style rooted in a fantasy of an ideal antebellum America — makes its larger message all the more pernicious. Its appeal as a place to live, to stroll, to gather gives its Confederate memorials special power, casting shadows literally and figuratively over the city.
These memorials rise above the generally banal and often shoddy Confederate memorials in other cities, not as art, but as something like luxury designer goods realized on an urban scale: The materials are of a high quality, the workmanship skilled, the details well-executed. That, too, makes them all the more effective as communicators of an ugly message.
In Richmond — as well as in cities around the world wrestling with legacies of racism, the slave trade, colonialism and the intellectual nexus that wove all three together into a coherent system of exploitation — there have been proposals to replace these statues. A July 2018 report, commissioned by Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney, called in particular for the possible replacement of the Davis monument, as “the most unabashedly Lost Cause” in its design and message.
Late last year, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts installed a statue by artist Kehinde Wiley called “Rumors of War,” depicting a young African American man riding a horse, cast in bronze and set on a grand plinth. Its position outside the museum, near Monument Avenue, and its close but ironic fidelity to the style and materials of traditional heroic statuary, seems to offer a simple solution to the horror of emptiness that slows the removal of Confederate symbolism: Simply replace old symbols with new ones.
It’s an appealing idea, and one might replace Jeff Davis with Frederick Douglass and leave the allegorical figure of vindication right where she is, surveying the state’s capital from high atop her commanding pillar. Other ideas have been floated for how to deal with empty plinths, including using them as an invitation for temporary art exhibitions, as happens on London’s “fourth plinth,” a vacant stone platform in Trafalgar Square that has, since 1999, been used to display works by contemporary artists.
But it’s also worth considering an idea that is widely repellent to conventional civic thinking in the United States — that we resist the urge to memorialize and move on from what historian Jay Winter called “the memory boom” of the 20th century. As Winter has argued, we may be good at remembering things at the local and intimate level, but very few of our efforts at something like a national or collective memory have yielded anything authentic or meaningful. So why do we keep trying, especially when so much of what constitutes our putative public memory is toxic confabulation?
Why, especially when we have within our history a still viable remnant of the “living memorial” tradition, which is essentially an argument not for memory, but for action, for making and doing things rather than pretending that we have some kind of sacred, collective power of reminiscence? The Kennedy Center, in Washington, is the most prominent living memorial in the nation’s capital, extending the 35th president’s legacy on a daily basis, in performative and participatory ways.
Vibrant democracies must be ever alert to history, always seeking to revise it closer to the demonstrable truth of the past. But the belief that we need heroes and “great men” (and it’s almost always men, especially men who distinguished themselves in the military and political arenas) is not working very well for us. We might try to experiment with living without the symbolic representation of a fictive past and focus our energies on making things new.
It is already happening. The nationwide protests over police brutality, full of improvised and individual expressions of anger, might be considered living memorials to Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. The impromptu and collective cheering for hospital staff and first responders in New York is a living monument to people whose heroic behavior is happening in real time, every day. The handmade signs affixed to a temporary fence near the White House, after the Trump administration used violence and co-opted the military to clear Lafayette Square, are a more vital response to authoritarian intimidation than any statue could ever express.
All of these recall an idea that was more vigorous in the early days of the republic than it is now — that old-style monuments and memorials are best left to countries that aren’t free, to monarchs and potentates. Democracies honor their leaders by perpetuating their ideals, not by erecting statues.
It won’t be easy. In the early 1840s, Ralph Waldo Emerson argued in his essay “The Poet” that everything is symbolic, even nature is symbolic, and that the United States needed poets who could undertake the elaboration and explication of new symbols. It seems we cannot exist without them: “We are symbols, and inhabit symbols,” he wrote. Even today, it’s a reflexive response of pundits, critics and television philosophers to claim that democracies, in particular, need collective symbols to unify them, as if we are children who need inspiring bedtime stories.
Yet, if you were to poll Americans about their symbols, there would likely be little if any consensus about them, with even great figures, like Abraham Lincoln, meaning different things to different people. And even though Lincoln has been revered by many Americans for much of the past century and a half, this reverence has been accompanied only sporadically by authentic action to achieve the legacy his memory seemed to promise.
It may be possible to work our way to new and better symbols, painfully and contentiously, but perhaps we don’t need them. Empty space is open space, vacant plinths can mean anything, which empowers those who contemplate them. Let’s shed the whole carapace of national symbolism, including the flag and the anthem, which are like catnip to demagogues, and get on with the real work of democracy, the work that is already happening in our streets, work that goes forward without leaders, work that embodies the core but latent idealism of the republic better than any monument, even our best ones.