The New York City Council voted to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from the city council chambers. I feel ambivalent about it, but thought I might work out some thoughts in a post.
Art is a symbol. Symbols have power because they enable us to capture ideas and communicate them to others. Art in particular has power because it conveys information and emotion – a great deal of it. It compels us to feel and think. Good art compels us to feel and think different feelings and thoughts, leading to introspection and conversation, allowing us to learn about each other and ourselves. This is one reason I find “preachy art” so annoying. If the only conversation it promotes is, “I agree” or “I disagree,” then it has failed its purpose as art; it’s become propoganda (which has its place, but that’s a topic for another post).
By this criteria, it seems that the statue of Thomas Jefferson at issue is probably good art. It inspires feelings of patriotism and pride in some. It reminds some of Jefferson’s words that “all men are created equal.” Its creator crafted it to celebrate Jefferson’s efforts to establish religious freedom. For others, it reminds them of the blatant hypocrisy of so many of the founding fathers; that despite their rhetoric about freedom and equality, most of them owned slaves. It reminds some that for the majority of the time our constitutional government has existed, the rhetoric of freedom has coincided with unequal treatment – lawful and unlawful – of immigrants, Jews, Catholics, Irish, Black people, Native people, Hispanics, and more.
It is valuable for each of us to share what we see in art such as this. I think public art should reflect the ideals of the community as a whole. There will always be some people who are offended by a work of art. It seems every installation of public art draws protest. There will always be people who love art that offends the majority. These are public debates in which everyone deserves a voice. But eventually a decision has to be made and in our system of government, the majority should be making that decision.
Fortunately, because art is open to interpretation, the story we tell about art is just as important as the art itself. The statue of Thomas Jefferson is either a tribute to religious freedom or a symbol of white supremacy, depending on who tells the story. Its removal can be a story of iconoclasm and fear taking over our society or it can be a story of our continuing effort to better ourselves as a people and as a nation. We control the story we tell ourselves and each other. The stories that are told the most powerfully, the stories that inspire hope, the stories that advocate for good can win, but only if we tell them. If we spend our time repeating – out of fear – the stories the degrade and detract, then fear wins. This doesn’t require we never change what art we place in public spaces! But I think it is valuable to see if you can try to craft an inspiring story about whatever art is placed there, even if you preferred a different choice.
Perhaps we could avoid all this debate by getting rid of all the statues. My ancestors – both Mormon and, further back, Protestant – rejected the use of most art in public spaces. While I think they went too far – visiting Italy showed me how statues can be an expression of beauty and assist in worship – I have sympathy for their reasoning.
One of the early purveyors of the anti-art attitudes was Savonarola, a monk who preached in Renaissance Florence. Savonarola sought to rid the city of sin by burning all the vanities – priceless works of art and academia that Savonarola considered evidence of and encouragement to sin. Savonarola saw this art, particularly those pieces inspired by ancient Greeks and Romans, as corrupting and distracting from the work of God. He inspired gangs of young men to go around the city gathering these vanities to be burned in a public bonfire. His preaching was apparently persuasive and infectious. Few people were willing to publicly speak out or defy these efforts, including vaunted intellectuals and artists who were contemporaries of and mentors to Michelangelo.
The burning of the vanities was a tragedy, but we can recognize that Savonarola’s criticisms have a source. The Catholic Church of his time had lost its way, focused on maintaining the power of Rome and the clergy, rather than bringing Christ to the people and the people to Christ. His efforts, along with many other reformers, did push the Church to reevaluate it’s mission and how it was achieving it. Unfortunately, it acted too slowly and too late to prevent schism.
Regardless, Savonarola’s mission failed. Destroying statues didn’t fix the hearts of people. Art can inspire and educate, but it is an expression of our ideas, not the wellspring. Stamping out offensive art may hide our sins, but it does not erase them.
We can see today’s Savonarolas as extremists and seek to “excommunicate” them, denying not just the expression of their claims, but also the substance. I fear that this will lead to further division. Instead, I think this is an opportunity to refocus our country and our ideals. We are not a nation of men, but of laws. We are not Thomas Jefferson’s country, but the country of the Declaration of Independence. He may have penned the words, but he was no god nor saint.
If we believe in our ideals, we need to recognize the ways we fall short of them. Too many people are left out of the prosperity of the nation. It is harder to be a mother, an immigrant, a Black person, a gay person. We may have passed the Civil Rights Act decades ago, but rooting racism and other bigotry out of our culture and institutions is an ongoing work. You can’t expect to overcome the culture and attitudes of centuries in only one generation.
Let’s not pull down all the statues and let’s certainly not destroy them. It would do far more to place tributes to the enslaved and colonized around (and perhaps above) the enslavers and colonizers. We would not be here without any of them, flawed as every single one of them were. We can pay tribute to all our ancestors, both by birth and by ideals. The greatest tribute to them, though, will go far beyond statues.
The greatest tribute will be continuing to put their ideas about equality into practice and perfecting the techniques and government they gave us. The founding fathers were not reactionaries seeking to preserve the old. They were revolutionaries looking to create something new and better than what came before. We should do the same, seeking to recognize the flaws in the institutions created by these flawed men and improve on them. That will honor them and benefit us far more than any statue.
A couple articles I found while writing this:
Thomas Jefferson Was More Than a Man of His Times – The Atlantic
Opinion | The Debate Over a Jefferson Statue Is Missing Some Surprising History – The New York Times (nytimes.com)