Statues are a model, an homage, a memento memoriae, a monument, a vestige of the past, and also a symbol to protest against and tear down. It all depends on the historical moment we live in, on the baggage we carry on our shoulders, and on the value we give to an object. The crucial point is contextualization, that is, the way we position ourselves in relation to what happened in the past.
Every epoch has its heroes, its values and its aesthetic canons. They are never absolute nor definitive, but they express and give voice to a particular historical moment. Every epoch also has its failures and its wars, victims left behind on the ground and innocent blood being spilled. A “heart of darkness” that, often, we carry within without elaborating its complexity, and that ends up affecting the way we perceive and live the present.
When a specific moment in history is far from us, we can easily make it ours, by appropriating its values, by embracing — or indeed refusing — its artistic canons, and even imposing meanings that never really belonged to it, to the stone and bronze of its art, because they came much later in time. When, on the other hand, the moment in history we think about is close to us, when we are still living it, we lack the critical frame of mind necessary to evaluate it and understand it.
During the past few weeks, on both sides of the oceans, many statues of historical figures have come under a fire made of revisionism, remotion and protest. They come down to the ground just like at the end of a dictatorship, with people either supporting or denigrating the men and women they represent. And this is understandable, until the moment we forget the importance of remembering. Erasing does not bring redemption, it doesn’t fix something that happened. Often, coming to term with history is much more important.
When the Bamiyan Buddhas — the two large statues created by a religious group in the rocky walls of the Bamiyan valley of Afghanistan, some 230 kilometers from its capital, Kabul — were destroyed in iconoclastic fury, the world reaction was one of condemnation for an act that had obliterated 2000 years old works of art. Humanity had lost, then, a piece of its history for ever, of its heritage, something so important that, in 2003, UNESCO introduced the whole archeological area around where the statues once stood to the World Heritage, also promising — along with some countries— to rebuild them. The reasons behind their destruction were political, connected to historical contingency and had little to do with the value of those representations.
If we go to Berlin on vacation, we instinctively look for a piece of its tragic past: of course, bringing down the Wall had a seminal meaning in 1989, not only for the history and future of Europe, but also for the end of the cold war, for democracy and for everything that has happened up to today on the Old Continent, and not only there. Yet, not being able to see it and touch it today, not being able to grasp fully the impact it used to have on the daily life of the city and its people is, in itself, a huge absence, a sort of missing tassel. We’re talking about “identity,” of coming to terms with our past, not certainly about the inability to take a selfie in front of a slab of concrete, maybe smiling, disrespectful for the sorrow and pain lying underneath all those graffiti.
Point is that taking down stuff and doing nothing else is rather useless. Naturally, once a tyrant falls, the statues that celebrated him are torn down. It’s understandable, from an emotional point of view. Symbolically, it’s a very much coherent act, especially even it happens in its proper context. But not centuries later, when years and years of semiotic elaborations have been attached to it. Iconoclastic fury on its own means nothing: without analysis, without understanding history’s complexity also through its objects, then we’ll have just lost an important occasion.
Testament to this, World War Two extermination camps. There are still people denying the Holocaust, in spite of having in front of them endless lists of names, people whose lives were cut short in those very places. History leaves us symbols and figures we are not forced to accept or like. But remotion, destruction and vandalism are useless if they are simple ends in themselves: in that case, we refuse history as our past, to make a powerless, pathetic part of an eternal present.
The same can be said about Christopher Columbus and his statue: are we really sure it embodies all the evil people say? Or something has been added to it that it never possessed at the beginning?
Every epoch in history makes its mistakes, and every cultural and social identity has positive and negative sides, just like every one of us does. But limiting our understanding of a contested past to getting rid of a monument means to repeat the same mistake made by those who once believe that defiling Michaelangelo’s Pietà was right. If there is no memory to engage ourselves with, never mind if it is positive and constructive or dirty and cowardly, as it has often been, we’ll never be able to go on. We’ll have learn nothing from the past.
If a stone soldier on a horse will suddenly go missing from one of our squares, history still remain the same, and nothing of what has been will be erased. With of without Jean of Arc’s statue, witch hunting, of yesterday and today, will still exist. With or without the Foro Italico in Rome, the tragedies of the fascist ventennio will still be real.
Working on education, on culture and inter-culture, on human, civil and social rights is essential. It’ll surely make more sense than building a new monument to replace an old one, or creating new symbols to replace those we ostracized. In this case, too, we’ll have to be careful not allow history and identity to succumb to exploitation, politicization and emotions, even when they come from a good place.