How Should We Deal with the Past When Visual Artworks are Becoming Monuments?

Former Robert E. Lee sculpture, Market Street Park, Charlottesville, VA, removed in July 2021.

Thanks to our profoundly unsettled political mood, recently there has been great deal of discussion about monuments. When, as was often the case in the United States, a public sculpture celebrated a Confederate Civil War general, or some other figure (Christopher Columbus, for example) who has become politically controversial, then that work is likely to be dismantled. And in my city, Pittsburgh, a monument to Stephen Foster was removed because its iconography – a poor Black man sat at the feet of the well-dressed composer – was singularly unfortunate. These artworks are now unacceptable. And of course this critical process is happening elsewhere too. Just as the end of the Soviet Union meant that statues of Stalin came down, at least in Eastern Europe, so now works celebrating Cecil Rhodes and the other leaders of European colonialism disappear in the UK. So far as I know, all of these are very minor artworks. And so, once they are judged to be politically pernicious, they were little controversy about their removal. Perhaps some deserve preservation for their sociological interest. But none, so far as I can see, are likely to be displayed for their aesthetic interest in art museums.

A memorial celebrates or commemorates in public some individual or cause we want to celebrate. It may be a figurative sculpture or painting but nowadays it can also be a minimalist work. An art world artwork is a different sort of thing. In the public art museum, a Catholic altarpiece doesn’t celebrate Christianity, nor do a Hindu sculpture or a Buddhist painting commemorate religious themes, for people don’t pray in museums. And in that neutral setting, we can admire an Aztec ritual dagger without espousing the values of that culture. Sometimes art works are also shown in public spaces. But it’s important then to distinguish these public artworks from memorials. Jeff Koons’ Split-Rocker (2000), temporarily installed at Rockefeller Center about a decade ago, was a public work, a shrewd comment on Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, that did not memorialize anything. And Alexander Calder’s mobile Pittsburgh (1958), which hangs above the entrance to the gates at the Pittsburgh airport, a marvelous comment on flying, doesn’t celebrate anything. A great memorial may not be even a very good work of art, and usually an artwork does not function as a memorial. More exactly, when it was painted Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642) commemorated the men who commissioned it, but now it is just a work of art. Conversely, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial (1981), a great monument, is perhaps not an important work of art; at any rate, that’s not why it matters, however much its design was influenced by study of artworks.

We take down memorials to the Confederate generals, Stalin and imperialists because they supported pernicious men and institutions whose effects still remain significant. They harm people here and now. Southerners (especially if they are Black) shouldn’t have to walk past statues of Confederate heroes. Nor should East Germans live with statues of Stalin or English people (especially emigrants) with sculptures celebrating Rhodes. And we do have monuments to Presidents Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and to Martin Luther King, Jr. because we value and so want to celebrate their political roles. By contrast, to display Catholic, Hindu and Buddhist art in a museum isn’t to take any stand on the moral values of those religious cultures. A museum is not a house for monuments.

Recently, however, this distinction between monuments and museum artworks has been blurred in a way that deserves discussion. If we believe that the artworks present a morally vile worldview, then we may regret that they are displayed. The art historian Linda Nochlin took this view of Lucian Freud’s images of women, which she thought deplorable. Indeed, in extreme cases we may feel that such works should be destroyed. Hannah Black, a political activist, took this view of Dana Schulz’s very recent painting depicting Emmett Till, which she felt was an immoral attempt of white artist to capitalize on Black suffering. Or consider a much more prominent, somewhat earlier painter, Pablo Picasso. That he was a sadist, amply revealed by John Richardson and his other biographers, is obvious enough in many of his portraits of his wives or lovers. And Balthus’ erotic images of young girls are obviously also problematic. It’s hard to take an aesthetic attitude on such artworks. That they present morally repugnant subjects may be reason to refuse to display them.

These familiar sorts of examples involve near-contemporary art. Nowadays we often are critical of such artists in the way that we are critical of public figures. What, then, is to be done with art by historically more distant figures? We say: ’He was a man of his time’. (My examples are male) That truism can be read in two ways. Because he lived in a different world, it’s unfair and inappropriate to judge him by our standards. When dueling was allowed, men legally dueled. Now that practice is outlawed. But it is also possible, of course, to morally judge that earlier artist’s times. Caravaggio killed a man in what could be called a dual. And Bernini, enraged by a former lover, had her savagely mutilated. Caravaggio fled Rome and Bernini did a commission to atone for his crime. Seventeenth-century Italy was a deplorably violent culture. Obviously, it would be absurd to judge old regime artists and art by present-day moral standards. But that’s not exactly what’s at stake. Here I return to reconsider my contrast between memorials and artworks.

When we ask to take down monuments to Robert E. Lee or Cecil Rhodes, we’re not interested in the ways that they (perhaps) were men of their times, lacking an enlightened morality. Our problem, rather, lies with the present effects of these monuments. To see public art honoring them is an affront here and now. The actions of Lee and Rhodes cannot be changed. We are not concerned with rewriting or neglecting history; on the contrary! But the feature of monuments which is relevant here is that they are in the present. That is, monuments function right here-and-now as effective statements of approval celebrating historical figures. Often, of course, we taken them for granted, especially when they have been in place for a long time. Precisely, however, for that reason, I would argue, a critical perspective should be welcomed. Only then can we define our values.

Everyone who knows the art world is acquainted with the changes that I describe. My goal here is to describe it in an unfamiliar way, which may help us comprehend what is happening. And here it’s helpful to return to the implications of my suggestion that the dividing line between monuments and artworks is being erased. It’s arguable, I think, that treating museum art as akin to monuments is a drastic mistake. What drawing my parallel shows, it might be said, is that art, especially older art, is better understood on its own terms, in purely historical fashion. Perhaps! But it’s also arguable, I believe, that the moralizing way of thinking about older artworks has now become inescapable, a way of thinking that cannot be avoided. Is it possible, for example, to greatly admire the art of Caravaggio and Bernini without taking some moral viewpoint on their entire visual culture? To do that requires blinding ourselves to the obvious significance many of their subjects. Here, of course, we touch upon one aspect of the numerous recent critical discussions of the art museum. And these are large, not easily resolved issues, for debate about art museums is embedded right now in these moral dilemmas.

These examples could be multiplied. What matters here, however, is seeing how comparing memorials and artworks may help us understand the key conceptual point. Walter Pater famously said, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” (1873). His mid-Victorian analysis anticipated abstract art. Now we might rather say, ‘art approximates to the condition of monuments’. Just as when he wrote it was hard to imagine the art of Kandinsky so, as yet, it is too early to understand the full consequences of this dramatic change in our sensibility.


On monuments see my On Koons, my The other examples I cite (and many more) come from the online publication Hyperallergic. My account is informed by Susan Neiman, Learning from the Germans. Race and the Memory of Evil.

David Correia is the author of Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico and a co-editor of La Jicarita: An Online Magazine of Environmental Politics in New Mexico