Art has been systematically destroyed for political reasons before, and hindsight is never kind to the destroyers. As a landmark example I think of the regret that seeps from every page of the LACMA exhibition catalogue, “Degenerate Art” (1991). The LACMA scholars attempted to reconstruct the original 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition (figure 5) which showcased avant-garde art the National Socialists thought harmful to public mores.

Figure 5. Entartete Kunst Ausstellung poster. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H02648 / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

To the Nazis these works constituted “a deliberate and calculated onslaught upon the very essence and survival of art itself.” They accordingly rounded up and removed thousands of works from permanent exhibitions in Germany while banishing notorious examples to a special traveling art exhibition intended to encourage public mockery and discourage artistic emulation. They then destroyed many works, sold others off overseas, and buried still others.

. . . these works constituted “a deliberate and calculated onslaught upon the very essence and survival of art itself”

They thought that avant-garde art, much of which was offensive or incomprehensible to conventional taste, weakened the social fabric of Germany. Surely such systemic poison was no accident of artistic evolution but the deliberate work of Germany’s enemies, identified, to no one’s surprise, as Jews and Bolsheviks. But for all of the Nazis’ predictable search for scapegoats, what they really couldn’t tolerate was a messy ambiguity in the art. Otto Dix’s famous lost Kriegskrüppel (‘War Cripples’) of 1920 will serve as an example (figure 6).

Figure 6. Otto Dix, Kriegskrüppel: 45 % Fit for Service. Photo: J. M. Gervásio. CC-BY-SA 4.0 International. Wikimedia Commons.

Dix put on canvas four German WWI veterans parading toward stage right. Each has suffered grim disfiguring wounds. Dix abandoned conventional respect for his fellow veterans, depicting them not as handsome Greek heroes but as wind-up expressionist caricatures. Their prosthetics do not so much restore their lost limbs and wrecked faces as emphasize them. Sardonic yet honest, Dix avoids that ‘dulce et decorum est’ sentimentality which is dear to governments and keeps the true price of wars decently out of sight. At once ugly and socially meaningful, funny and serious, cruel and humane, it was great art. One can imagine the Nazis bursting a collective blood vessel deploring a work so alien to their militarism.

In fact, like Dix’s lost painting, monuments emit mixed signals, just like the many channels on a cable tv. Some of those channels are high-minded, some appeal to baser instincts, and some are public access. Confederate monuments are no exception, though in their case politics tends to push people to tune the set to their favorite channel and then remove the knob. Some only watch the channel that plays old patriotic films complimentary to themselves, their ancestors, the subjects of the statues, and the people who commissioned them. Others restrict themselves to a channel that plays stark black and white documentaries about racism and atrocities.

Occasionally, the public access channel gets commandeered by crazies who broadcast their fantasy of an America where white people push colored ones back into the sea, or who broadcast a homemade horror film in which the statue’s malevolent creators embedded a demonic racism in the bronze which infects anyone who sees it. We can learn something on every channel, but the more edifying ones go practically unwatched. It’s not the monument’s fault.

I should note in passing that the common iconoclastic argument that monuments and memorials must glorify their subjects—and thus endorse their bad, as well as their good acts and ideas—is flatly mistaken. Think of that Reich Chancellery eagle and those Zyklon B canisters as counterexamples. Some monuments were surely erected to confer glory, or at least signal approval, but nowadays we have grown beyond a default expectation that they must.

monuments outlive their original intent and take on more complicated and sometimes tragic meanings

In any event, monuments outlive their original intent and take on more complicated and sometimes tragic meanings. Custer’s Little Bighorn monument is a good example but far better is the coffin of Emmet Till in the Smithsonian’s African American History and Culture Museum. The coffin and the unbearable photographs of Till’s wrecked face in it bring home the horrifying circumstances of fear and sorrow black US citizens have had to endure. We should be forced to confront this. Unfortunately, not everyone has gotten the memo that monuments, like life, are complicated. Till’s cousin Simeon Wright, however, did:

People look at this casket and say, “You mean to tell me this happened in America?” And we will have a part of the artifacts from that era to prove to them that things like this went on in America. . . . Even today, it seems impossible to me that the Civil War took place in America. . . . That’s hard for me to believe but I see the statues. I see the statues of the solders, the Union soldiers and the Confederate soldiers, and it just helps us to believe the past. This casket’s going to help millions to understand and believe that racism, the Jim Crow system, was alive and well in America back in 1955.

And so, our public monuments, even Confederate ones, remind us of the richness of our national and human experience. It’s not all jolly. Nevertheless, we do not think it beyond a citizen’s capacity to endure the medicine’s momentary bitterness while ingesting the unpleasant but salutary lessons of Till’s coffin, or Andersonville (figure 7), or the hulk of the USS Arizona (figure 8), or the former Nisei exhibit in the Smithsonian American History Museum. The civic duty of confronting unflattering truths does not weaken America’s social fabric.

(Click the link below to go to page 3 of this post.)

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

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