Some statues are a worthy historical memory. Others are a cruel past threatening the current generation. That is their purpose. We can be disgusted at pampered, middle class protestors vandalising a statue here, and I am, but we cheered a mob dragging Saddam Hussein’s idol from its plinth in Baghdad.
The distinction is too fine a one for those with a cause and a bee in their bonnet and testosterone surging. I will defend statues, but I recognise what they are, and it is uncomfortable. Seeing what they are, one may conclude that felling all statutes and melting them down is the unavoidable philosophical conclusion.
Statues are a form of constructed immortality, not for the characters portrayed but for those who erect the statue. Every generation passes away, but its monuments stand in an open attempt to impose the dominance of the dead on the forthcoming generations. The ubiquitous image of Lenin in the pose of hailing a cab was erected all across the Soviet Union as a mark of domination, a constant reminder in the fabric of you home town that it belonged to the Bolsheviks. When the Communists fell, so the statues had to fall.
The statues seen across British cities are important to remind the doubtful in this weak piping time of peace that greatness, that nobility of mind and strength of arm resides in each of us. There was purpose behind the rash of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian statues, raised in gratitude at the memory of a man (who could obviously not see it). Their purpose was to reflect an appreciation of his qualities and give a lesson to the upcoming generation. (It did become too much of a habit, particularly in London, which begins to resemble a graveyard.) If they are worthy fellows portrayed, the number and weight of them all the same shows how our nation can be great.
The statues of our cities are then an inspiration, deliberately teaching the qualities that built a nation and empire: insulting them feels like an insult to all of us who recognise the lesson they teach. Those who attack them know that, do it specifically to topple not the man but the qualities they represent. To defend the monuments is not to defend the ghost of the man or woman portrayed but the qualities which uphold society.
America is different. There are statues which have called to be dragged down. The Confederate hero statues in some southern state capitals are not all contemporary with their subject, the spontaneous expressions of gratitude: they were not erected after the Civil War but long after, in the age of the Jim Crow laws in the early twentieth century. Maybe they were to restore the dignity of communities, but it is hard to see them other than a way to put down a marker. The grey-coated soldiers fought against the United States, to preserve the Old South and slavery, and their statues were erected so as to mark territory: ‘this state belongs to the white man, to segregation and to the Democratic Party which upholds those principles’.
The Americans have plenty of worthies to celebrate, whose lessons should be appreciated. Some monuments though may have a sinister purpose.
Our Neolithic ancestors would understand; they who erected the first stone monuments in the same spirit that we do today. The reasons for even the most ancient ones are no mystery, because man is man and stone monuments do what they have always done: they lay down ownership and demand respect by virtue of their immortality. From an ancient stone circle to a likeness on a plinth, it marks ownership of the future.
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Too much statuary becomes habit-forming and worse: as one worthy is memorialised, another’s champions must demand equal celebration. It has becomes a competition. Today it is more clearly a battle of ideology, that ideas must be represented in order that another ideology may not dominate. Therefore it follows that all contrary ideas must have their bronze markers toppled. Statues defend values into future generations, and are therefore on the front line of the culture war. There is continuity between Saddam Hussein on his plinth and Nelson on his column, and a moorland stone row marking the generations of long a forgotten Neolithic tribe.
I do not like an excess of statues. Any statue is distasteful to my first reaction. The Second Commandment speaks loudly:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image
We do not imagine that some spirit of the person or a godlet lives within the cold stone the way the pagans did, but we see an idea elevated to divine heights. That is still dangerous, still a graven image. A metal statue of a man nine feet high is worrying, and so is the idea of treating him as a perfect model in bronze apotheosis.