“100 yards from where we stand, less than 90 days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench, until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”
Julian Carr, speaking at the dedication of the Memorial to Civil War Soldiers of the University of North Carolina, UNC (Chapel Hill), 1913
“Get him the hell out of here, will you, please?…Get him out of here. Throw him out!…so obnoxious and so loud…maybe he should have been roughed up.”
Donald Trump to a Black Lives Matter protester November, 2015
What role does art play in political revolution? How can public art collectively shape our civic identity? These ideas are at the forefront of leftist direct political action in the wake of Charlottesville. Before antifa activists engaged fascists in the streets of that small Virginian city, white supremacist led a (tiki) torch lit march on the campus of the University of Virginia to support the continued presence of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in a park in nearby Charlottesville. Since those protests and the murder of a young activists and the wounding of nineteen more at the hands of a fascist, Jim Crow monuments have begun to come down across the eastern and southern United States. Four public sculptures were removed in Baltimore, Maryland, a statue was removed without the permission of the authorities in Durham, North Carolina. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has called upon Confederate references to be removed from State College campuses. Nancy Pelosi has called for all Confederate statues to be removed from the Capitol building. Even in New York City the M.T.A. is investigating which tile art could possibly reference the Confederacy and is tasked with removing that subway art.
What has galvanized this issue, of course, is the overt support President Trump has shown for white supremacists, neo-Nazis and his fawning nostalgia for the kitschy symbols of white racists Confederate ‘culture’. At heart of removing the Jim Crow sculpture, however, is the radical gesture of destroying art as a tool for collectively reordering civic memory. Setting aside the dearth of artistic merits of these statues, (most of which were mass produced in Northern workshops) the statues still exist as art objects properly understood. Schlocky mediocrities that they are, these statues exist as repositories of value and meaning for the communities that commissioned, fashioned and maintain them. To destroy, or desecrate, or remove these statues is to not simply alter their physical location or appearance. Instead this act of removal seeks to destroy, to desecrate and to erase the ideology that these statues represents. These statues are not simply Confederate Monuments but are a visual manifestation of the ideology that created them, Jim Crow. Similar to the Nazi kitsch muscle man sculpture or the tacky lavishness of Trump Tower, these Jim Crow sculptures seek to assert power over groups perceived as weak and expendable. To look at art, to look at these Jim Crow statues, is not a passive visual experience. Instead, the viewer of any work of art is an active participant in the meaning and memory that each work of art seeks to render. To look at art is to participate in politics and to destroy art is a political act. Nazism and Jim Crow and Trumpism are despicable ideologies and their adherents, and monuments, should be removed by any means necessary.