People are often aware of things which make their culture distinctive, sometimes simply because outsiders pick it out for comment and sometimes because it becomes a site of conflict. But probably most aspects of cultures go on, even for centuries, without much scrutiny. They simply continue as habits or conventions or unreflected reactions. They are part of what I want to call our Deep Culture.
For centuries or more now, in European cultures with well-defined elites, those elites often react to the death of one of their leaders by proceeding to the erection of a statue of that person in a public place, the statue either paid by the state or funded by what is called “public subscription”. The resulting statue will certainly cost a lot of money, will almost certainly be without any aesthetic merit, and in a short space of time will remain of interest only to dogs and pigeons. Those who pass by on the street or in the park where it is located will barely notice it, simply treating it as part of the street clutter which city authorities specialise in proliferating. City authorities abhor a vacuum and certainly an uncluttered open space – that too is the habit of their own neurotic culture.
Sometimes, these monumental sculptures supposedly dedicated to the memory of dead people become objects of controversy and sometimes they are even removed when it is reckoned that the person, on reflection, was one of the Wicked and not one of the Virtuous. But these spats never shift the ingrained reaction which recreates a dead person in an awful monument and which even leads to supposed radicals and revolutionaries wanting to put up monuments to their own heroes. How might one change this whole way of thinking?
In some cultures, graven images are proscribed and there are sometimes even more specific prohibitions and requirements. In Wahabbi Islam, for example, there is a rule which says that rulers must be buried in unmarked graves thus blocking any possibility that the burial site should become a place of pilgrimage. This seems to me an excellent idea, and should easily be acceptable to those in broadly Christian-Protestant cultures who will choose to have their own ashes scattered to the winds. They may wish to be remembered, but not through occupation of a burial plot.
But how more actively to bring it about that people think that public monuments – and certainly figurative monuments which recreate the image of the dead person - are not an appropriate way to memorialise the dead?
I suppose one way might be to focus on the choice mechanisms which decide who gets a monument and who doesn’t. Look at the monuments in any European city and it is almost blindingly obvious that the monuments do not represent popular choices. They are elite choices but choices which lay claim to public space. No popular vote would ever have put those chaps on horseback onto three of the four plinths which mark out the perimeter of Trafalgar Square, and it is a challenge which at least ninety nine percent of the living population of London will fail if you ask, What are the names of those men on horseback?
When the underdogs of history manage to get a monument up to one of their own, it doesn’t alter the general tone and the dogs and the pigeons are indifferent to the differences. And when the underdogs become the overdogs, well, then we can end up with monuments which are even worse than those which went before. There is no accounting for bad taste,
Look at it another way. Imagine cities cleared of all these dreary monuments, these plinths and busts and equestrian statues making way for open spaces or works of art or even fountains and trees.