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Monday, 21 August 2017

Monumental Sculpture

"I would find myself in a desert of the past, filled with nothing but monuments" - Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War.

All things change and what goes up must come down. I can’t think that monumental sculpture was ever a good idea, bigging up things in order to magnify, glorify and fix the memory of mostly bit players in history. It was basically a job for skilled technicians who rarely had any more sense of form or style than those, lower down the market, who mass produced angels to droop over graves. The angels should be bulldozed (nowadays - shortage of space - they often are) and so too should the equestrian statues of generals, the politicians puffed up on plinths, the liberators who should be content with a popular memory that once upon a time they liberated.

I’m only familiar with near to my home, Europe’s capital city centres littered with statues to individuals, both statues and individuals generally meritless and now of interest only to dogs and pigeons. The money, often raised by grateful public subscription and, if not, paid for from the taxes of the poor – well, the money could have been much better spent. There were, from time to time, people who got the message and spent instead on useful buildings. Andrew Carnegie did that, giving away a fortune worth in modern terms about $80 billion which, among many other things, funded the building of three thousand libraries. I double checked. Three thousand. True, he put his name on them - and if you were mean-minded, you could take that off and still have the building. With a monumental sculpture, you don’t have that sort of choice and my choice would be to take them all down.

That’s one reason I could both sympathise with Oxford University students who wanted to topple Cecil Rhodes from his perch on Oriel College but also feel that they had mis-diagnosed the problem. The problem is all these sculptures, even the ones to the Goodies of history whose goodness is, in my eyes, always diminished by a stonemason’s assertion of that goodness.

I made myself go and look at Cecil Rhodes last time I was in Oxford. There’s not much to look at and, I suspect, until his presence was highlighted, nothing about his bird-shit spattered statue which would have attracted anyone’s attention. In contrast, the anonymous heads of thirteen men with beards which provide a boundary for the Sheldonian Theatre do attract attention, even though they are the modern (1972) replacement copies of Victorian replacements of the 1669 originals. These heads are anonymous and so feature neither the virtuous or the wicked except insofar as they are all men with beards. I can’t find any trace of a suggestion that seven should be removed and replaced to create a gender balance and I’m not sure how I would feel if someone did make the suggestion. But their anonymity is one reason why I would be inclined to leave them all in place.

That opens the way for someone to say that it’s valuable to be reminded of our history, even if we would not repeat it the same way today. The statues and sculptures provide incidental prompts to think about our history as we go about our work and play. Nelson atop his column in London, Peter the Great riding his horse in St Petersburg - don’t these things give us at least some sense that the history of a country, the history of a city, is layered and not merely spatial? Aren’t they, if you like, part of a city’s archaeology?

Quite a good argument and so I’ll offer a compromise. Let each city draw up an inventory of the public monuments dedicated just to named individuals. Then let the public vote for a handful they would like to keep. In London, they would surely keep Nelson on his column. But those chaps on the three surrounding plinths? Not even a reasonable General Knowledge contest question: George IV, General Sir Charles James Napier, Major-General Sir Henry Havelock. All of them Baddies, as it happens, but that is really incidental. How many Londoners who walk through the Square on the way to work could sketch the statues from memory? But they could all sketch the Column.

I don’t mind what happens to the monuments which come down. They could go to some open air museum or simply go to recycling. The main thing is that our cityscapes would look and feel so much better – so much more decent is the word that comes to mind - without them. The worst thing that could happen is that we topple one lot only to replace them with another lot. 

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