It’s what every culture in human history has done: using art to further your agenda. Art is important and powerful. Who you memorialize in art says a lot about the culture. When the culture changes course, the art changes. Just ask the Roman Empire, whose emperors would simply replace the faces of statues of previous emperors with faces carved in their own image.
When I studied art history, I never really formed an opinion about whether people of the past “should have” changed their statues, monuments, places of worship, etc. It was just facts, just history.
Of course, here in our own time I have a lot of opinions about the power of art in our community, and how we should wield that power.
First, of course memorials to Confederate rebels should be taken down. They took up arms against their own country, fighting for the right to have slaves and trying to justify it as a “state’s rights issue” doesn’t change the facts. They were traitors to the U.S.
Second, most of the memorials were erected in either the Jim Crow era or the Civil Rights era. At those points in time, the clear message behind the powerful art was that blacks are inferior to whites, and this art is a solid, daily reminder of that fact. It was about oppression. Why on earth would we keep that art on display in places of honor, with no context like you would receive in a museum? The real reason would be to say that we continue the cultural norms of the people that erected the memorials: as a visual representation of ongoing oppression.
Third, lately I have heard some misguided arguments like “well, go ahead and take down all the George Washington statues because he owned slaves.” That is misguided because most of the Washington memorials were built to honor his achievements and the positive things he did for us. The fact that he was a slave owner is an embarrassing part of his story, not the reason why the memorials were made. They were not built to say “hey, we are honoring you for owning slaves.”
Art is important. Why it was made is almost always just as important as the art itself. Art is propaganda. We should use it wisely.
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