The re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter as a cultural force means the usual divisive stories are again dominating the headlines. They amount to a screaming match going on around the so-called “cancellation of white culture”. Classic movies such as Gone With The Wind are being withdrawn so producers can give them more historical context and the BBC has removed the always awful Little Britain from its streaming services because of its use of blackface. There are now calls for statues to come down but, as always happens, the calls don’t end with the easy victories. Protestors are now targeting statues of Queen Victoria and Churchill. They want our public spaces changing to reflect an awareness of a much broader public.
From a dispassionate point of view, it is pretty hard to argue against any of this. Statues of real people come to symbolise more than their achievements. There’s a dense history underpinning every biography and, should you wish to go exploring, considerable ugliness too. We just tend to forget this because statues are also an aesthetic experience. Town squares tend to look better with statues and for many people it doesn’t seem to matter what those statues represent.
This is the contradictory nature of statues; how something so specific becomes vague with the passage of time. Queen Victoria statues look down on most towns in the country but it’s not entirely clear what purpose they now serve. Every general on a charging horse could be replaced by a jockey celebrating a Grand National win (though probably better if it was some other less cruel sport) and they would still provide the same roost for pigeons, the same opportunity to put traffic cones on their heads during drunken New Year celebrations. We would still be able to drape the scarves of our teams around them after winning championships and cups. Even politics would carry on whether Churchill’s statue stood outside the Palace of Westminster or in a museum.
It’s almost as if we erect statues knowing full well that we’ll eventually learn to forget them. Celebration becomes mere commemoration and then commemoration becomes something else entirely. Who, after all, ever stops before some long-forgotten statue and naively says “oh, they are up there because they were such a great person”? We might do that if we were explaining it to a child but we’re usually muttering some variation of “oh, another rich guy who probably used his wealth to do terrible things” or “all that success didn’t do then much good” or “no idea who he is but he sure looks like my Uncle Ralph”?
Statues expose the hubris of people who thought their significance would last. Unless you’re entirely blind to Churchill’s flaws, you probably already look on his statue and internalise the contradictions of his biography but, more potent still, is when you don’t know anything about Churchill and you begin to exhibit that cynicism towards the great and powerful that all statues elicit. Every statue of Victoria represents the achievements of empire but also its brutal ascent and humiliating decline, assuming, of course, that people even know who she once was. Then we become Shelley’s traveller from an antique land, gazing on the wrecked visage of Ozymandias. That’s an often understated power of statues.
Plus, they’re also a good place for pigeons to sit and to shit.
That sounds trivial but statues have this function that’s almost entirely subconscious. We think they elevate when deep down we surely know that they demean. They watch over us, even as we forget about them. Most people probably don’t even know who or what most statues represent. Only when we learn the names and, often, the terrible crimes committed by these long forgotten people, do we feel the urge to tear them down. Then that too becomes a function but it’s fleeting. The humiliation of centuries of pigeons defecating over their eyeballs is swapped for the humiliation of an hour or a day. Perhaps this is what they deserve but it’s a small act of mercy compared with being forgotten by history even as you sit in public view.
None of this means that I’m not sympathetic to the current cull of old slave traders. Living in the moment is always a difficult balance between remaining in the past whilst reaching for the future. We’ve been pulling down statues since the dawn of time and, no doubt, we will be pulling them down attached to the bumpers of flying cars. Statues are value judgements frozen in time. To think they are bound to last is to forget every one that didn’t. Each one represents a moment when somebody privileged the present and thought something was worth remembering. And then time and pigeons begin to work their magic.
And that, perhaps, is the entire point of statues: to be shit upon and to be forgotten. They are monuments to former greatness diminished by time. Anything else is a delusion.