Submission to the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm
(Chairs: Dr Debbie Weekes-Bernard and Justine Simons OBE)
“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” (Audre Lorde)
This submission is made by way of asking the Commission to consider the argument that the erection of any new statues or monuments to individuals should be discouraged and planning permission refused. At the same time, many existing statues should be removed.
The traditional style of these monuments to individuals - recently exemplified by the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square - produces a stone or metal effigy or mummy of a dead person, posed upright, and supported by a plinth. A horse has often been deployed to add further height.
This traditional mode has been used for centuries by elites in an attempt to immortalise themselves.
Though the form probably goes back to the Pharaohs, if not beyond, this kind of grisly monumentalisation has never been a popular art form and is unlikely to become so even if those immortalised are changed.
In addition, and as with Heaven and Hell, a binary choice has to be imposed on history. Either an individual gets a statue or they don’t. This not only produces endless and inconclusive debates about whether someone merits a statue but also obstinately ignores the fact that human beings always have demerits as well as merits; they may be heroes but they are never saints.
Inevitably, the monumental statue system favours leaders over followers and gives no recognition to the part played by groups and movements. When the two are juxtaposed, the effect is sometimes unfortunate: for example, the juxtaposition of the Cenotaph in Whitehall and Earl Haig is indefensible. Haig should not be there.
For public graveyards, there are protocols for clearing them out and starting again. No protocols exist for removing unwanted statues and it will be no easy task for your Commission to formulate any.
I would urge the Commission to consider the many limitations of trying to use public space to create public memory and to have regard in their recommendations to the fact that the world changes faster than bronze or marble wears out.
Submitted 9 June 2020; acknowledged 13 July 2020.