2017 was a huge year for statues. From Kristen Visbal’s “Fearless Girl” facing down the bull outside the New York Stock Exchange to the removal of Confederate statues across the South, 2017 brought to the fore the history — and politics — behind the statues that dot the American landscape.
Few other years have made us think in such sustained fashion about the role of public art in defining how we think about who we are as a culture. While statues are erected and dismantled every year, the political climate in the wake of the 2016 election has particularly focused on race and gender inequalities that were raised by the campaign. The country began to examine the markers of its national consciousness — literal and figurative — and the histories that had forged them.
It started in March. On March 7, the day before International Women’s Day, a resolute girl appeared in front of Wall Street’s “Charging Bull,” a fixture since being placed there by Arturo Di Modica in 1989. The new bronze figure was called “Fearless (or Defiant) Girl,” and Visbal, the artist, said that she envisioned the statue as a challenge to the male-dominated banking industry. Commissioned by State Street Global Advisors, the statue was perhaps a distraction tactic after federal allegations that State Street had paid the firm’s female executives less than their male counterparts.
The world paid little attention to SSGA’s $5 million settlement. What resonated was the idea of a girl staring down the iconic bull of Wall Street.
So compelling was the statue that it inspired imitators and replicas. The United Nation’s observance of International Day of the Girl in Paris featured a replica of Visbal’s statue. Meanwhile, the California Democratic Party wanted a statue of a young girl of its own at its headquarters in Sacramento. It erected Julia Fernandez-Pol’s “Persist” on its roof in May.
As the summer weather warmed, our discontents also grew hotter, with Americans going to war over the removal of Confederate statues all over the United States. One such statue served as the gathering ground for the “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville. The protest, held by white nationalists on Aug. 12, sought to prevent the removal and relocation of Charlottesville’s statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Despite the violence on that day, which left one woman dead and 19 others wounded, the statues remain as the city council works to clear a number of legal and political hurdles that stand in the way of removing them. A lawsuit alleged that a 1904 law prohibited the removal of veteran monuments not only in counties but also in cities such as Charlottesville.
Even with legal clearance, the removal will be pricey: A commission estimated relocation would cost $330,000 for Lee and $370,000 for Jackson. As of December, the statues remained shrouded in the black tarps that were placed over them in August.
Other statues, though, quickly fell as cities and universities examined their statuary for physical traces of historical memory as it existed before the revolutionary shifts fueled by the civil rights movement.
Aug. 18 saw the demise of the Roger Taney statue in front of the Maryland State House. Taney was the U.S. chief justice who authored the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision denying citizenship to black Americans.
That same month, universities with Confederate statues scrambled to quietly remove them, fearing their campuses might be engulfed by violence like what unfolded in Charlottesville.
Among the universities removing statues of Lee were Duke University and the University of Texas at Austin. Duke announced that its Lee statue would be removed and preserved, not destroyed or simply discarded. It initially indicated that the statue would live on as an educational object aimed at teaching its students about the institution’s complicated history. But Duke President Vincent E. Price later indicated that a campus committee would create a more systematic program for relaying history other than the current passive scheme, in which universities preserve the statues that faculty members and students found when they arrived on campus.
It wasn’t just the South rethinking its statues. On Nov. 6, the Central Park Conservancy tweeted: “Today, we’re dedicating the future Central Park site for the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Woman Suffrage Movement Monument.” This announcement intended to rectify the discovery that none of the 22 statues of historical figures in the park were of a woman. The Stanton and Anthony statues are scheduled to appear in August 2020, the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States.
Perhaps by that date the planners will have found a way to incorporate women of color such as Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who split their efforts between advancing the civil rights of blacks and women. They could also support efforts to include women who are primarily associated with accomplishments outside of women’s suffrage and feminism. Historically, our monuments have tended to overlook the real achievements of women in many fields, whether it’s Rachel Carson to Zora Neale Hurston.
What we learned in 2017 was that statues and history had mattered to us all along. They could be effective propaganda to curry public favor, as in the case of “Fearless Girl.” They can be battlefields over identity and belonging, as in the case of Charlottesville. Or they can be efforts to correct, at least in part, long-standing absences and injustices.
Throughout 2017, the overwhelming narrative was that history and its statues tell us who we are and who we want to be. That’s why emotions about them have run so high — because the stakes are so high, too. And that’s why statues will continue to matter as the new year begins.