Guardian: All statues should come down, no matter whom they depict

June 2, 2021 • 1:15 pm

In the latest “Long Read” of the Guardian (which, to be honest, could have been considerably shorter), Gary Younge defends this view: not just statues of historically nefarious people should come down, but that all statues should come down. No person should, he claims, be memorialized with an effigy, though events themselves might. But no statues of people, whoever they may have been.

Right off the bat Younge identifies himself as a “black leftwing Guardian columnist for more than two decades”. Such is how people establish their credibility these days, though, to be sure, Younge’s background shouldn’t really count one way or another. But when he argues against putting up statues of people like Rosa Parks, you can be sure that his remarks don’t stem from ideological bias.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here are the reasons why Younge wants every statue toppled. Quotes from the article are indented:

a.) Status are lazy and ugly, especially when they’re of people. I don’t really agree and can think of some notable exceptions, one being the statue of Lincoln in his eponymous Washington D.C. memorial. And what about the Statue of Liberty? (Well, that’s not a real person. . . ) Do religious statues count? And what about, for example, the great statue of Augustus Prima Porta in Vatican City? But Younge thinks they’re all “poor as works of public art”. Younge doesn’t, however, think this is true of other public memorials, mentioning the lovely Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C.

b.) Times change and so do norms. Statues no longer represent a consensus view.  This is the conventional argument for removing statues of people whose morals don’t comport with modern ones. But this isn’t Younge’s main argument, for this doesn’t argue for removing statues of people who did good things and whose good deeds are being commemorated.

c.) Statues don’t erase history because they are not themselves history. They show an individual who may have helped make history, good or bad, but Younge doesn’t subscribe to the “Great Man” (and Women) theory of history as promoted by Thomas Carlyle and attacked by Tolstoy in books like War and Peace. A quote:

Statues are not history; they represent historical figures. They may have been set up to mark a person’s historical contribution, but they are not themselves history. If you take down Nelson Mandela’s bust on London’s South Bank, you do not erase the history of the anti-apartheid struggle. Statues are symbols of reverence; they are not symbols of history. They elevate an individual from a historical moment and celebrate them.

Nobody thinks that when Iraqis removed statues of Saddam Hussein from around the country they wanted him to be forgotten. Quite the opposite. They wanted him, and his crimes, to be remembered. They just didn’t want him to be revered. Indeed, if the people removing a statue are trying to erase history, then they are very bad at it. For if the erection of a statue is a fact of history, then removing it is no less so. It can also do far more to raise awareness of history. More people know about Colston and what he did as a result of his statue being taken down than ever did as a result of it being put up. Indeed, the very people campaigning to take down the symbols of colonialism and slavery are the same ones who want more to be taught about colonialism and slavery in schools. The ones who want to keep them up are generally the ones who would prefer we didn’t study what these people actually did.

. . . Statues always tell us more about the values of the period when they were put up than about the story of the person depicted. Two years before Martin Luther King’s death, a poll showed that the majority of Americans viewed him unfavourably. Four decades later, when Barack Obama unveiled a memorial to King in Washington DC, 91% of Americans approved. Rather than teaching us about the past, his statue distorts history.

But isn’t remembering “values of the past” a useful exercise as well?

d.) By memorializing specific individuals, statues “erase” or “marginalize” important people involved in the same or similar  historical events. For this Younge uses the case of Rosa Parks:

Consider the statue of Rosa Parks that stands in the US Capitol. Parks was a great woman, whose refusal to give up her seat for a white woman on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama challenged local segregation laws and sparked the civil rights movement. When Parks died in 2005, her funeral was attended by thousands, and her contribution to the civil rights struggle was eulogised around the world.

But the reality is more complex. Parks was not the first to plead not guilty after resisting Montgomery’s segregation laws on its buses. Before Parks, there was a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin. Colvin was all set to be the icon of the civil rights movement until she fell pregnant. Because she was an unmarried teenager, she was dropped by the conservative elders of the local church, who were key leaders of the movement. When I interviewed Colvin 20 years ago, she was just getting by as a nurses’ aide and living in the Bronx, all but forgotten.

And while what Parks did was a catalyst for resistance, the event that forced the segregationists to climb down wasn’t the work of one individual in a single moment, but the year-longcollective efforts of African Americans in Montgomery who boycotted the buses – maids and gardeners who walked miles in sun and rain, despite intimidation, those who carpooled to get people where they needed to go, those who sacrificed their time and effort for the cause. The unknown soldiers of civil rights. These are the people who made it happen. Where is their statue? Where is their place in history? How easily and wilfully the main actors can be relegated to faceless extras.

Again, I’m not fully on board here. When I see a statue of Rosa Parks, I don’t think of her in particular, but of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in general, and of the cooperation of the black community that eventually brought the bus company to its knees and ended segregation on Montgomery buses. Where is the statue to the “unknown soldiers of civil rights”? Well, look no further than the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the new Legacy Museum in Montgomery.   There are several others as well.

I’ll ask other readers to agree or disagree with Younge’s thesis, and to name statues, if you like them, that you think should stay up. I’ll end her with Younge’s last two paragraphs:

Of course I want Parks to be remembered. Of course I want her to take her rightful place in history. All the less reason to diminish that memory by casting her in bronze and erecting her beyond memory.

So let us not burden future generations with the weight of our faulty memory and the lies of our partial mythology. Let us not put up the people we ostensibly cherish so that they can be forgotten and ignored. Let us elevate them, and others – in the curriculum, through scholarships and museums. Let us subject them to the critiques they deserve, which may convert them from inert models of their former selves to the complex, and often flawed, people that they were. Let us fight to embed the values of those we admire in our politics and our culture. Let’s cover their anniversaries in the media and set them in tests. But the last thing we should do is cover their likeness in concrete and set them in stone.

Here’s a statue of Rosa Parks erected in the U.S. Capitol n 2013 and dedicated by Barack Obama (you can see a video of his remarks here).

h/t: Jez

48 thoughts on “Guardian: All statues should come down, no matter whom they depict

  1. Oh, the irony of Mitch McConnell, probably the principal congressional leader of the party that is pursuing suppression of minority voting rights as its one remaining path to power, seated right next to Rosa Parks…

  2. Or, alternatively, we can simply stop expecting people commemorated by statues to be perfect.

    We are all vastly less than perfect, but statues remind us that non-perfect humans are still capable of doing things worth remembering.

    1. “We are all … less than perfect…”

      Speak for yourself!

      No, that was just a joke. But emoticons are above my pay grade.

  3. In history the statue was the only way to create a visual memory of many people, certainly before the 18th century. They did not have photos, digital and otherwise and even the early photos did not hold up well. A painting was possible but that was usually only available to the people of wealth. Statues were a more permanent reminder of the person and a conversation. The fact that you might judge each of these statues by your 21st century mind and decide to destroy all of them did not occur at the time. It is only modern society that would even make a decision to remove all statues of everyone and that should tell us something about modern society. Judging is apparently more important than actually doing something.

  4. Beyond stupid. Next, no more biography. All biographies are biased. All leave people out, marginalizes them. Get rid of them all!

      1. As a citizen of another country I know about Rosa Parks and it didn’t take a statue to get me there. Ok, this following statement is not the same but multiple story high banners of leaders e.g. Nth Korea and the like make me cringe. This type of self worship aggrandizing is IMO not the future along with statues no matter who it is. I’d prefer a magnificent native tree, something alive and useful. Artists can paint a portrait and that’s a individual’s choice.
        Documentary, books, movies etc are a better option they tell a more comprehensive story and can be criticised and reviewed, you can’t with a statue… wait, sorry “look how that arms hanging” that’s it?
        Rosa Parks was part of the changing cultural environs of the time just as and surely the bigoted racist was a person of the times. What’s more it’s still going on regardless of a statue, humans need to be emotionally connected, I dont get that from statues.
        We repeatedly remind ourselves of this when it comes to our favoured or other figures judged by 2021 standards.
        Our job as modern homo to me is to understand history and move on with lessons learnt not to my mind litter the place with heavy objects that really don’t matter as a reminder of that. Rosa Park also wanted to move on or she would not have done what she did.
        BUT, I do have two chimpanzee busts as bookends for my small science reads of current interest.

    1. And, as Laurence Sterne suggested with Tristram Shandy 260 years ago, no biography can ever be the complete story of its subject, let alone the subject’s times.

      With a statue and especially a plaque with brief comments about the person you get some information, which a person could speculate on and follow up, if interested. How having no statue at all provokes and increases our historical curiosity and understanding is something of a mystery.

    2. “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

      George Orwell ~ Nineteen Eighty Four

  5. I wonder if he’s been listening to The Redskins “Kick over the Statues”?

    Hmm, though they’d have to change their name now…..

  6. I look at this as a crank’s letter to the editor. It should be given no more attention than its humor value justifies.

  7. Statues are not history; they represent historical figures.

    For better and worse, humans are storytellers.The ‘worse’ part is exactly what he says – we often think more about the people than the history. But the ‘better’ is that our storytelling nature can be used to educate us. You don’t have to subscribe to the ‘great man’ idea of history to understand that a kid’s probably going to remember more history if the history your relate to them has a protagonist, a conflict or tension, action, and resolution. History may be about many people working together, but how well we can remember history and empathize with it is often about seeing ourselves in the story, relating to individuals.

    So I find myself not agreeing with him. While it’s true that no view of the past may be unbiased or perfectly accurate, statues IMO can be used to educate about history in a useful manner, they don’t *only* truncate it in a nonuseful manner. Removing them has, for lack of a better analogy, an opportunity cost. For every person who sees a Rosa Parks statue and mistakenly gets the idea that the civil rights movement was only about her, there is likely one or more young people who sees a Rosa Parks statue and this prompts them to learn more about the civil rights movement than they knew before.

    All IMO, at least.

    1. They can also act as visual fixation points/triggers, as if in a “memory palace”, of the series of historical events related to the person they represent, and can also lead their viewers to want to learn more about them, and the related events.

  8. I suspect that he doesn’t REALLY subscribe to this point of view in his bones – though I could be wrong – but is making a provocative point to trigger a rethinking of the issue. It is at least a pretty unique view, and made me think about my own attitude toward statues just a little. I don’t agree with him, but his argument is at least more logically consistent than that of removing statues of people who weren’t perfect by the standard du jour.

    Of course, we should never EVER remove the statue of the great Ozymandius.

  9. What would Mr. Younge think should be done about tomb monuments and monumental brasses? If the latter were abolished, what would brass rubbing enthusiasts do instead?

  10. A statue is a piece of art. OK, so Rosa Parks is depicted. She has glasses. A coat. She is sitting. I guess it was chilly, and she saw the optometrist.

    Why is this statue here? Who is this? I really do not know _from_the_statue. How could anybody of any age? They couldn’t.

    Until someone says “oh yes, Rosa Parks – do you know about her?” And a conversation is sparked. Maybe there is misinformation. Maybe awareness was raised. But at the end of it, that lump of metal fashioned into a shape with such a visceral, familiar reaction has made an impression.

    Younge is asking too much – he wants a 500 page treatise represented in art. More over, he does not get it. It is art – not … whatever he is expecting from … whatever he is proposing… which is… to … get rid of art.

    I do admit I learned more background of the Montgomery story from his piece – valuable, for certain. But that is not a reason for us all to throw statues in the ocean like Puritans rebooting the present for a Brave New World. (Apologies for over-writing there – I went with it).

    As for the proposal – nice try.

  11. Why would anyone be interested in people, for Hank‘s sake! There’s stuff: Much more interesting and memorable.

    Erase all people from all histories. It’s only the history, completely exclusive of the people living at the time, that matters. Right.

  12. “Younge’s background shouldn’t really count one way or another.”

    That’s what us rational people believe, of course, but the Woke believe the exact opposite: it’s all that counts.

    Certainly the modern hoo-hah over statues might lead one to advocate for their complete elimination but that would be the lazy way out. I prefer keeping them all now and promising to come back to the issue in, say, 30 years. I’ll probably be gone by then and it’s not a coincidence.

  13. I am not commenting on whether all statues should be taken down. But, when Younge says this, he is absolutely correct:

    “Statues are not history; they represent historical figures. They may have been set up to mark a person’s historical contribution, but they are not themselves history. If you take down Nelson Mandela’s bust on London’s South Bank, you do not erase the history of the anti-apartheid struggle. Statues are symbols of reverence; they are not symbols of history. They elevate an individual from a historical moment and celebrate them.”

    I have made this point several times when discussing whether Confederate statues should be removed. Such statues are, indeed, symbols of reverence. When such persons are no longer deemed worthy of reverence then the symbol should be removed. History is not erased when the statue is removed because history is not learned from a statue. If that were the case, Germany should be overwhelmed with statues of Hitler.

    1. I’ve made a similar point although I will argue with you just a bit here. The act of erecting a statue is part of history, as is the act (potentially) of removing it.

      While we’re in agreement about Confederate statues erected during Jim Crow and later as acts intended to intimidate fellow citizens, Younge’s illogic is so massive that it is hard to believe he has put more than a moment’s thought into it. His reasoning, if accepted, would apply to all references to everyone in the past since talking about anyone of necessity marginalizes those who aren’t mentioned. It is as if he’s saying “If you can’t remember everyone you should remember no-one.” Submit “honor” for “remember”, if you like, the absurdity is on a similar scale.

    2. “they are not themselves history.”

      So what? Statues are art.

      “If you take down Nelson Mandela’s bust on London’s South Bank, you do not erase the history of the anti-apartheid struggle”

      Who says statues are supposed to do that?

      Are these rules for statue-viewing for every person of any age? Will a 5 year old get the wrong idea? Or are statues only for adults? Should statues have disclaimers and educational materials so nobody gets the wrong ideas?

  14. Also, we need to get rid of the Ernie Banks statue at Wrigley Field, and that damn Picasso statue downtown of the woman combing her hair – got to go!

  15. I have two thoughts. Being in Boston, I adore the statues, especially in the Boston Public Garden. My favorites are the memorial to the discovery of ether (anesthesia) and, of course, the famous and much-loved ducklings.

    Here is a link to a visual for the moving ether statue:

    If all statues are to be torn down, that includes the ducklings, as surely celebrating them marginalizes non-duck species, yes? What a ridiculous thought.


  16. Eek how long before these people cast their toxic lens on other aspects of the art world eg portrait paintings. Bye bye the revered masters works. Blooming stupid and who gave them the authority to detained what is beautiful in art. As an amateur artist this makes my blood boil.

  17. look at it another way. Do we need some statues to remind us of what Happened in Tulsa 100 years ago. You bet we do. Oklahoma has attempted to keep it out of the history for 100 years and that is the problem. That is part of the crime.

  18. I propose that a statue of Gary Younge be erected to honour him for his outstanding reappraisal of the value of statues.

  19. I would not outright remove statues, for they are works of art and add something to public spaces, but I agree with the sentiment.

    I don’t like the “great man theory” where heroic individuals, through their actions and inventions, act like protagonist in a historical narrative. That is simply not an accurate reflection of history for most of the time. Quite often, opportunities present themselves historically and several people could do the famous thing, and it’s more a matter of “right time at the right place”. One reason is also that creativity is not a divine spark, but comes from the mating of ideas that float about at a time. Remarkably often, several people hit onto similar ideas in a given period.

    Idolatry of people is occasionally grating to me, but I would not remove statues.

    1. Ideas don’t “mate” equally in the minds of all people. While it is true that broad swaths of history are the result of the actions of many, the actions of a few often have great impact, disproportionate to the person’s “share” of the space they occupy. It is the nature of hierarchical social organization, for the most part. One can wish otherwise, but hierarchies matter.

    2. Remember the GOP convention golden statue of Trump wearing flip-flops, American flag shorts and wielding a magic wand? Is the jury still out as to whether that was homage or satire?

  20. Savonarola wasn’t much for statues either.

    (FWIW, the Vietnam Memorial wall is hugely popular now, but was considered controversial back when it was installed in 1982 — both because of what was thought to be its lugubrious, abstract design and, at least in some circles, because its designer was a young Asian-American woman, Maya Lin. Ronald Reagan’s idiot Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, even initially refused to issue a building permit for its construction. It was this controversy that in part prompted the installation the following year of the nearby, more-traditionalist “Three Soldiers” statue by Frederick Hart, though those two works of art are generally considered complimentary today.)

    1. I visited the Vietnam Memorial wall a couple of times I think in the late 80s while visiting the area. A school mate friend of mine is listed there. You have to check a directory they have there to determine where to look for a name. This is because they are not in alphabetical order as you might think. Each of the wall pieces is numbered and you determine the name and wall number to find the name. The guy quit school I think at the end of our junior year and then joined the Marines. I don’t recall if he was 18 yet or had to get his parents to sign for him to join. It was a sad deal but helped me to figure out later what I wanted to do to beat the draft.

      1. I’ve visited the Wall, too. I believe the names are listed in chronological order of death, through the chronology starts in the middle of the Wall, below the apex, works its way down the slope to the right hand corner, then starts again at the left hand corner and works its way back up the slope to the granite panel in the middle of the Wall below the apex

        I used the directory, too, to find the names of the older guys from my neighborhood who shipped over to Southeast Asia and came home in a box. It’s a powerful experience.

  21. I think this an illustration of the far left view that everyone should be equal, and that elevating any one person tends to make mediocre people realize that they just don’t measure up.
    It is a fundamental difference in worldview. The statues, portraits, and biographies are supposed to be aspirational.
    But to these folks, singling out great people is demoralizing.
    It must be terribly depressing for them.

  22. Hardly anyone knows or cares about the biographies (good or bad) of the people depicted in statues across the UK. They are (mostly) anonymous figures forming part of the street scenes. There is no “message” emanating from these sculptures.
    Younge thinks there are too many statues. The first time I’ve ever heard that sentiment. What is “too many”? What is the problem that ensues from having “too many”?

  23. Given that Gary Younge is a Muslim, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t a sort of back-door attempt to do away with “idolatry” under a secular guise.

    1. I don’t think Gary Younge is a Muslim. Why do you feel the need to read between the lines and impute a religious motive on his article?

  24. Lot of reaction here without reading the article methinks. And a bit of ad hominem above as well. Younge says statues are “poor as works of public art and poor as efforts at memorialisation” and is being even-handed by saying that you shouldn’t even pick favourites.

    I think he is right that statues are a really poor way to remember history. They were erected by a small politically minded minority for specific purposes, usually reverence, and in many cases after a time when the history of the controversy surrounding the individuals was forgotten. It really is a case, as Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony really meant, of the total opposite of: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.’
    And he effectively notes that those who want to take statues down usually are those who want more teaching of history and re-examining the links between the past and the present. Those who want to keep statues are usually those in denial. The examples of no Nazi statues and the Iraqi’s pulling down statues of Saddam Hussein speak volumes.

    1. I suspect he is dead wrong but it kind of depends on what statue you are referring to as they are no more equal than we are. If you are thinking about a monument to a Confederate Civil War person erected many years later in the Jim Crow south or are you looking at a statue of George Washington located anywhere. Ten of our first 15 presidents were slave owners. Do we get more information/history by taking down all statues of them? If we do I sure do not see it. It is all there if you care to study the history and read the books on each. That George was a slave owner, one of the biggest in Virginia is as known as any of his other achievements. The statues and monuments are not for the slave owner. Instead they are for many other things he did during his life and they are far more than any titles thrown at him from slave owner to father of our country. That statue of a confederate general was made and displayed by people who still thought slavery was a good thing years after it was gone.

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