What Is A Statue, Anyway?

On June the 6th BLM activists pulled down a statue of the Confederate General Williams Carter Wickham in Richmond, Virginia.

The very same day in the UK, on the 76th anniversary of DDay, the Churchhill statue in London that stands facing parliament would be vandalised by BLM activists.

The next day, June the 7th BLM activists in Bristol would tear down a statue of the slave trader, MP and spiritual founder of the city, Edward Colston and throw it into the river.

This isn’t the first, and won’t be the last time that statues have become a focal point of the culture war. The violent far-right Charlottesville march in 2017 was ostensibly to protect a statue of Robert E Lee from being pulled down.

So what is it about statues that galvanizes people to fight over them?

Firstly, let's talk about what statues are not.

Though they are works of art, statues are not primarily artistic in nature.

Even though they are often pleasing to look at, statues are not just decoration for space.

Though they commemorate events or figures, statues are not primarily historical artefacts.

While both erecting and pulling down a statue is a historical event, “making history” is not the primary purpose of either act.

Statues are primarily symbols.

Like flags, their primary purpose is a physical manifestation of power and dominance over an area.

Being able to build, maintain and defend a statue signifies that the ideals that it represents have power in the area it is built.

Some Statues demonstrate more power than others. This is Guan Yu, a Chinese historical figure, looming large.

Just as a conquering force will remove enemy flags from fortifications and fly their own flags over captured cities, destroying statues and pulling down monuments is an extremely powerful symbolic act that demonstrates a paradigm shift in power.

Being able to pull down a statue is a symbolic event that communicates: “You are no longer in control here”

Pulling down a statue and replacing it with something else communicates: “We are in control here”

Remember how powerful this moment was?

The problem with statues in modern politics is that the values and ideals that these statues are projecting into the world are determined entirely by the viewer.

Was Churchill a racist?

By modern definitions, yes.

He was also an important wartime figure and a hero to many British people, for whom he represents individuality, freedom, fortitude in the face of overwhelming odds and anti-totalitarianism.

The people defacing the statue believe themselves to be winning a victory over the ideal of racism and colonialism.

The people outraged at the statue being defaced believe themselves to be witnessing an attack on British identity and the ideals they represent.

Likewise, for confederate statues in the US.

Many southerners don’t see their confederate statues as symbols of racism and slavery but as a celebration of their identity.

The northern states have long dominated the US, politically and economically.

US southerners, similar to other subjugated populations in the world, like the Scottish, Irish and Welsh in the UK, or the Catalans in Spain hold very strongly onto their historical identity to avoid being subsumed into the dominant culture.

An attack on confederate statues is seen as an attack on the identity that those people have held onto so firmly.

The only way out of this without conflict is to understand that statues, like all art have their meaning projected onto them by the observer.

Churchill can be both a racist and a war hero.

Robert E Lee can represent both slavery and southern identity.

Colston can both represent slavery and the spirit of Bristol.

While many might be angry at what they believe theses public symbols represent, the destruction of statues will be interpreted by many as a direct attack on a people, their culture and their values.

The destruction of statues, particularly the unlawful destruction of statues should not be encouraged by the press. For many, it is a dramatic escalation in conflict that may be hard to pull back from.

If you enjoyed (or hated) this piece you can find me on twitter to make any comments you want.

M.A in Geopolitics, Territory and Security from King’s College London. I’m much more concerned with what’s going to happen rather than what should happen.

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