America’s current soul-searching over its Confederate statues is but one example of a worldwide problem: if destroying monuments is a bad idea, how do we detoxify ones that have fallen out of step with their times? Probably nothing short of destruction will satisfy angry extremists, but we needn’t be held hostage by them. Perhaps, though, by winnowing through some proposals that have already been made, we can find some wheat among the chaff.
In 2011, the group Destructive Creation engineered a superficially comic but otherwise morally serious makeover of an old communist-era monument (figure 9) erected in Sofia in 1954 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the liberation of Bulgaria by the Soviet army. The irony, lost on no one, was that the liberators had become overlords.
The group brought the dead monument back to life overnight by spraypainting its cadre of fighting Soviet heroes, depicted with humorless socialist realism, into cheerily colorful US corporate brand mascots including Superman, the Joker, Ronald McDonald, and the reason for the season, Santa Claus (figure 10). “In step with the times” ran the caption sprayed below the doctored panel.
Were you to think that after the liberation of Bulgaria at the end of the cold war western corporations merely stepped into the vacuum, you might find your mood lightened to see Soviet “liberators” ironically repurposed into capitalist ones.
Of course, Destructive Creation’s work had no public sanction and was quickly cleaned off as vandalism. No government is going to let an anarchic and slyly subversive treatment of its monuments stand. Still, there was something delightfully thoughtful in their work, which rose well above vandalism.
Less fun are six proposals to rework Confederate monuments published in a 2018 New York Times op-ed. A couple are thoughtful, but I infer from their labored symbolism that they are not seriously meant. Two examples: The first, by Dread Scott, is titled, “The Legacy of Slavery Is in the Way of Progress and Will Be Until America, Which Benefits From That Legacy, Has Been Replaced With a Completely Different Society.” The idea is to tumble the column that once supported the New Orleans Lee statue across the traffic circle that surrounds it. There it will deliberately stall traffic, analogizing traffic flow to social progress and the column remnants to revenant Confederate racial views.
Kenya (Robinson)’s proposal at first holds out the promise of a more earnest solution: “Keep the statues. Keep the men on their horses .… Think of it as an educational defense against the kind of racism-obscuring erasure we continue to see — like textbooks that rename trans-Atlantic human trafficking the “Triangular Trade”.” Yet the high-camp proposal that follows, while no doubt cathartic for the artist, provides no defense against racism-obscuring erasure: (Robinson) would cage the monument in wrought-iron and fill the cage with African gray parrots taught to speak “unusual catchphrases.” The project turns on the Dr. Phibes fantasy of administering vengeful pain to those who respect the statues by forcing them to watch caked bird droppings slowly eat the bronze away.
The porridge seems to me just right in a humane and effective idea adopted by the Italian municipality of Bolzano. There the problem is a monumental relief on the Palazzo degli Uffici Finanziari (figure 11), formerly fascist headquarters.
In the two-storey-high panel, a giant equestrian Mussolini still gives the fascist salute while surrounded by symbols of the history of fascism and its roots (figure 12). We are urged, with the imperative infinitives so dear to that era, “CREDERE OBBEDIRE COMBATTERE”: believe, obey, fight!
Believe what? Obey or fight whom? These blank checks, intended originally to be cashed in accordance with the fascists’ needs, are antithetical to a democratic society. But rather than destroying the monument, as some sought, the municipality decided instead, as one Italian writer put it, to “depotenziare quell’ imbarazzante fregio” (‘disempower that embarrassing frieze’).
In the end the municipality adopted a proposal in 2017 to unfurl a slender banner in blazing white lights across the face of the frieze. The banner contradicts those open-ended imperatives with Hannah Arendt’s phrase, “Nessuno ha il diritto di obbedire” — ‘no one has the right to obey.’ That is: no one has the privilege of suspending her moral conscience by pleading obedience. This message does not damage the monument but clearly and permanently acknowledges the messy situation the monument represents: Fascist monuments should be preserved while Fascist sins should be remembered. No parrots were involved.
We may hope for a quick redress to an old wrong by eliminating uncomfortable monuments, and to the pleasure of this redress we can add that of signaling our virtue while administering a gratifying slap to people we don’t much like. But it’s just when our actions are sweetened—and hastened—by this sugar that we need to consider our long-term advantage and hold on to our values tightest. The citizens of Bolzano found a humane and tolerant way of dealing with this problem by elegantly preserving the monument while pulling its fangs. It would be well if Robert E. Lee could learn from Mussolini in this respect.