There is a lot of talk these days about statues. On one side of the argument are those who say that if a renowned figure stood for causes of hate or violence the general public have no interest to see, much less think about, this historical figure. On the other side is the argument that if someone was a part of history they embody something of the evolution and understanding of what was and what is. They would argue that if you remove these statues all you are doing is rewriting history. The latter group also want to put persons in context, that we can’t judge historical figures by our current culture and values.
But I think we are missing one of the central functions of public art, which surely is one of the reasons we place these statues in highly visible places. It seems to me that a public statue is as important as a means of inspiration as it is as a means of information. Throughout our daily lives we witness many images and one of the great things about public art is that it gives all a common set of images to relate to and identify with. Americans love their Statue of Liberty because it reminds them of their mission, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” There is lift to those words and an iconic statue adds to those whole experience of transformation.
When we were dealing with statues of real people who each have a history we are moving into the complicated realm of humanity. No one is perfect. I remember leading a faith study at a church on various Saints throughout history. Every one of them was challenged by someone in group, they had all committed various sins and we all knew the extent of their shortcomings. One example was Martin Luther King Jr., surely one of the great and inspiring historical figures of recent times. But to several in our little study King’s relationship with women, his repeated infidelities, made him no Saint. They could not even listen to the causes King led, his words of justice and love and all of the legislation he helped pass that shaped a nation in a better way.
There are many who have mixed feelings about the statue of Winston Churchill on Spring Garden Road. Many argue that Churchill’s leadership may have saved civilization from a Nazi empire. But Churchill also stood against women suffrage and for colonialism. And in the case of these latter two issues it was not a case of being “in his time”, many contemporaries of Churchill were on the opposite side of both. Surely Churchill must be held accountable for his views on those topics.
For me the matter of statues and which ones stand and which ones are removed comes down to this, do these historic figures inspire us, did they rise to the challenge of the issues of their time to do important things or were they mere products of their time, an example of how leaders then carried out their mission. Leaders like those of the US Confederacy worked for one goal, to be a nation that could keep their slaves. Whatever personal virtues they had their stated cause was slavery pure and simple. While such figures can never be removed from history, they should remain in texts and museums, they are surely not qualified to be part of public art, public images that inspire and lift our spirits. Our own Edward Cornwallis carried out violent acts toward very specific groups. The question I have is this, did he stand for anything, do anything that would be an inspiration to those of us who walk the streets of Halifax. If the answer to that question is no then his statue should come down. If the answer is yes tell me what that is. I am not aware of Cornwallis’ virtue apart from being the leader in his time. There were many such leaders then. What makes Cornwallis stand out? I think Churchill should stay, he is a human after all and in spite of his mistakes, which we all make, he did some amazing thing and spoke some amazing words of hope. When I am down some of the words I use to inspire me are Churchill.
We all need images to inspire us to hope. Let’s see if there aren’t more diverse images for our increasingly diverse community.