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Sunday, 17 June 2018

Tackling the Statue Problem: What Goes Up Should Come Down


In the United Kingdom, it is a convention that all postage stamp designs include a portrait of the current monarch. From 1840 up until now, not one stamp has been issued without the monarch’s head. But when the monarch changes, so does the portrait and no one seems to think this disrespectful.

Banknotes change in the same way but, in addition, their designs have to change within the reign of one monarch to cope with inflation and the needs of maintaining and enhancing security against forgery. In my country, when banknotes change the opportunity is also taken to change the great or good personage now conventionally represented on the back of every note.  But those personages don’t last forever; it is soon the turn of someone else. We will swap the critic of slavery for the friend of slavery, and so on.

In contrast, we are stuck with the men on plinths – even more so now that we have started to big up women on their own plinths. Once a statue has been put up, it is supposed to stay up, and any attempt to take it down would be met with fierce opposition – not that anyone very often even tries. As a result, we have cityscapes where a great deal of pavement and park is given over to monuments to the temporarily-reckoned great and good of the past few centuries.

The atavistic stone and brass works on plinths are one or two steps removed from embalmed corpses or effigies, but for the most part they aim to be copied from life, perhaps larger than life size but otherwise naturalistic. In artistic terms, nearly all these monuments are without merit nor are they really intended to be with merit. This is as true of Gillian Wearing’s Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Sqaure as of the men around her. Nonetheless, it is partly because they are seen as works of art that the totems on plinths are safe from being toppled. If we could get away from that idea of work of art, it would begin to make the task of de-cluttering our cityscapes that much easier.

Who gets to be monumentalised is partly decided by governments and partly by Public Subscription. The latter creates its own problems. When people contributed their shilling towards a brass or marble statue, they expected the result to stay where it is put. They expected long-term value for their money. It’s not for some future generation to declare some person unworthy of a statue in public space; the subscribers have already settled the matter for eternity.

This is a bizarre line of thought. Public cemeteries are full of the work of monumental masons paid for by the grateful inheritors of some dead person’s property, but the cemeteries fill up and decay, the monuments topple over, and eventually the whole lot is bulldozed. Nobody much minds. No one cares who paid or how much or why for some drooping angel.

Most Londoners who pass around Trafalgar Square on their way to work could no doubt sketch Nelson’s Column on the back of an envelope and supply the name of the monument at the same time. But how many could sketch the men on horseback on the three plinths around Nelson, or name them? I leave you to do the necessary search to discover that they are not particularly meritorious individuals, unless you have a very rose-tinted view of our Imperial history. But just imagine what an exhausting business it would be to get those statues off those plinths and shipped off to some horse sanctuary or knacker's yard willing to take them. But that is what should happen.

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