To Remove or Not to Remove?

In the late hours of May 19, 2017, the 16’6” bronze sculpture of General Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Confederate army, was removed from Lee Circle, St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana.  To avert any violence, minimize media exposure, and to control unruly crowds (should the occasion have arisen), barricades and the cover of twilight and night were employed.

To eradicate a very dark chapter in American history, darkness was employed in New Orleans; this same darkness has just been utilized in Baltimore to remove another Confederate sculpture.

Intended as a memorial monument to honor General Robert E. Lee, the sculpture, created by sculptor Alexander Doyle, was dedicated at Tivoli Circle in 1884 (changed to Lee Circle shortly thereafter), some 19 years after the end of the Civil War (or War Between the States for those still licking-the-wounds-of-defeat).

Sitting on an 8’4” pedestal base, the sculpture is reminiscent of early 2nd century CE Trajan’s Column, Rome, Italy, and the 1871 Place Vendôme column, Paris, France. Other columns in this genre celebrate potentates, tyrannical rulers, and saints.

Two days after the removal of General Lee’s sculpture Mississippi lawmaker Karl Oliver vented his anger in a Facebook posting in which he advocated that Louisiana leaders who supported the decision “Should be LYNCHED.” Even though he later apologized, the stone was cast and his cri de guerre in defense of the preservation of Confederate monuments became a rallying cry for Neo Nazis, the Alt Right, White Supremacists, the KKK, and the disaffected across a nation that has been polarized by the winds that begot us a new political regime. Led by the Twitterer-in-chief, in this new political climate politicians and wannabes compete with   each other to discharge vacuous visceral pronouncements through social media, including Facebook, twitter, and blogs. A new platform of expression has emerged, one in which a disgruntled citizenry step into digital rings/screens to slug it out in pugilistic, caustic rhetoric. Unfortunately, truth, sanity, and compassion have given way to violence, acrimony, and vengeance. Equally unfortunate is the fact that restraint and polite discourse have succumbed to in-your-face confrontations. Instead of lucidity, lunacy has taken over, instead of dialogue, defiance has become the norm, and instead of harmony, hate and name calling have become the weapons of choice.

And in Pavlovian fashion, Baltimore, MD, Memphis, TN, Jacksonville, Gainesville,  & Orlando, FL, Lexington, KY, and Atlanta, GA, to name but a few, are in the process of removing  many of the 718 Confederate memorial sculptures across the south and southwest. Some 300 of these sculptures are located across the state of Georgia. In the last 48 hours an Atlanta Confederate memorial was vandalized, and two days past a bronze sculpture of a Confederate soldier was toppled in Durham, NC. Even the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall has not been spared; it was vandalized on Wednesday of this week.

At this momentous juncture and tragic turn of events in the nation’s history we are faced with the following grave decision/s: To Remove, Or Not To Remove?

Inasmuch as I abhor the institutionalized trade and exploitation of African slaves (frequently preached and justified from the pulpits –  with selective biblical texts, of course), and inasmuch as I vehemently reject what the many hate groups holding on to the vestiges of the sordid past represent, I am not quite sure how I feel about the purging of historical monuments and art works created to honor the war dead, those who, even though they followed a misguided cause, were honored by their families and communities in an attempt to bring healing to torn hearts, families, communities, states, and a nation that bled human misery during the darkest epoch of her young  life. Aren’t the attempts to expunge public squares, parks, and monuments a form of censorship? And where does this exercise in collective eradication of visual images lead? And, will the removal of symbols of discord be the cathartic and legal antidote to racism, bigotry, hatred, and violence that have plagued the nation since its creation? Will the removal of these many sculptures bring equality, harmony, peace and goodwill on this, our American soil? And finally, will expunging history bring equality and justice?

While I don’t have answers to the aforementioned, examples from the pages of past and recent history are apropos.

Assyrian monarchs honed brutality to an art form and proudly commissioned art works depicting their conquests on monumental stone panels; stolen by the British from Iraq, these ancient Mesopotamian panels grace the expansive exhibit halls and corridors of the British Museum. Should these high relief works that celebrate orgies of killing and beheadings be hauled off to some stone quarry because they celebrate the violence of tyrannical rulers? That the Roman Emperor Commodus was a blood-thirsty, megalomaniac is acknowledged. That Caligula and Nero represent characters of depraved, vile wickedness, sadistic, and narcissistic dispositions is a historical fact. Pray, tell, what good would it do to remove their images and sculptures from museums? And what good would it do to dismantle Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden Villa)?

Better known as the wild conqueror who “decapitated his way through Asia,” Genghis Khan’s images are depicted in numerous surviving silk screens and manuscripts. And so are images of the English King John, better known as the “lecherous traitor, [the] depraved tyrant, [the] greedy villain” depicted in many an illuminated manuscript. Holbein’s 1540 portrait of King Henry VIII, he of the six wives and beheading fests, hangs in Rome’s Palazzo Barberini. Does that mean that Genghis Khan and King John’s images should be expunged from the silk screens and manuscripts? And should not Henry VIII’s portrait be likewise taken down and placed in some dark corner of the catacombs?

After Christianity became an established faith in Europe and Asia Minor and for a millennium, Christian zealots destroyed prized Greek and Roman art works, especially sculptures. The offense? Nudity was associated with paganism and lustful desires, a cardinal sin. Of the fortunate Hellenic and Hellenistic art works that have survived, the zealots’ hammers lobbed off limbs and genitalia. The most fortunate surviving undamaged sculptures are art works that were buried under debris and recovered from shipwrecks.

In the Byzantine Empire, religious fanaticism and lunacy reared up their ugly hydra heads twice (726-777 & 814-842) in what became known as the Byzantine Iconoclasm. As a result of their misreading of the 3rd commandment’s admonishment not to worship graven images, Christian zealots destroyed tens of thousands of priceless icons, sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and frescoes. Equally abhorrent was the great purging (in Holland and Northern Europe) of tens of thousands of tapestries, prints, paintings, and manuscripts as a result of the Reformation’s shaking off of centuries-old church’s stranglehold on people’s lives.

Perhaps one of history’s worst cultural and historical purges occurred after the 1942 final fall of Andalusian Granada to Isabella and Ferdinand. Under the command of zealot cardinals, especially Cardinal Francisco Jeménez de Cisneros, Andalusian bathhouses, art works, mosques, synagogues, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, scientific  instruments, including the astrolabe, navigational and surgical instruments, were destroyed and publically burned. Treatises on optics, music, poetry, geography, history, astrology, astronomy, horticulture, illustrated manuscripts on medicine and apothecary manuals were devoured by large bonfires — only because they were written in Arabic; translations of Archimedes and Aristotle and much Greek lore in translation were forever lost.

Yet another example of fanatical frenzy occurred soon after the French Revolution began. Zealous revolutionaries claimed the Ile de la Cite’s Notre Dame Cathedral as their very own; they set about decapitating the heads of the many monarchs and saints that graced the beautiful spandrels and pediments on the façade of this rare gem of Gothic architecture. And in Nazi Germany priceless cubist and surreal artworks were destroyed because they were deemed “degenerate art.”

Since 2000, Taliban fanatics have destroyed centuries-old Bamiyan Buddha sculptures; in Mali Moslem fanatics have destroyed ancient mausoleums, burned priceless manuscripts, and defaced the Great Mosque in Timbuktu, a World Culture Heritage site; in Iraq and Syria ISIS and its ilk have been destroying ancient historic sites, including Palmyra. (For more on the latter read Franklin Lamb’s numerous meticulous, eloquent, and elegiac documentation of the destruction of  Near Eastern historical sites, especially in Syria.)

When art, in its myriad expressions, is destroyed by the victors, religious zealots, anarchists, or those bent on correcting ancient historic sins, the gratification is short-lived. However, when the remains of the dead are disturbed by the living it calls for a serious censure. Case in point is Israel’s destruction of the 7th century Moslem/Arab/Palestinian cemetery in Jerusalem’s Mamilla district. A cemetery that has served as a Muslim burial place for over 1300 years has been malevolently razed and bulldozed so as to erect the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance. How does pulverizing the remains of the dead on hallowed  ground, a ground that has embraced the remains of thousands of Palestinians lo these many years, dovetail with Tolerance?

Like a caustic and vengeful hydra, intolerance is levitating its ugly head across the world.  Saudi Arabia and Israel, America’s closest allies in the Near East, are the most intolerant countries in the region. Intolerance is rearing its ugly face in Eastern Europe, especially Hungary, Ukraine, and Poland; and likewise across the African and Asian continents.

By and large, art, by its very nature is propaganda, propaganda for good or bad. Art elicits emotional and intellectual responses. Art transposes us from the quotidian to the universally shared values that bind us as an extended community better known as humanity. Art is also a reminder that when the dark forces of evil and hatred heave themselves to provoke our base instincts into violent action, art is the curative mirror into which we should look for guidance, reconciliation, and restoration of harmony and good will.

And finally, a question worth posing: Qui Bono from the removal of the hundreds of hundreds of Confederate monuments across the south?

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a sculptor, writer, photographer, and avid gardener, and a soon-to-be apiarist.

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist.