Interpreting Historical Monuments Calls for Nuance

  • In this Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016 photo, a statue of Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman by Augustus Saint-Gaudens is located at an entrance to New York's Central Park. In Central Park, none of the sculptures or busts honoring illustrious people is a woman. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

  • The Department of Political Science panel is part of Walter Beach Humphrey's "Hovey Murals," completed in the late 1930s in the faculty dining hall at Dartmouth College. ("The Hovey Murals at Dartmouth College: Culture and Contexts")

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2017

As an adolescent growing up in New York City in the bad old 1970s, my rambles sometimes took me past the equestrian monument of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman at Grand Army Plaza at the start of Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 59th street.

By then, Sherman’s statue, which was dedicated in 1903 and was one of the last major works of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, had dulled from brilliant gold to dull bronze and he routinely wore a mantle of pigeon droppings.

This was the era of a frightening crime rate and a civic disregard at all levels for the city’s physical infrastructure. The public art and buildings that make any city what it is were degraded and ignored, thanks to the city’s financial woes and collective malaise.

I knew that the plaza honored the Grand Army of the Republic, which brought the North victory over the South during the Civil War. I didn’t know then that Saint-Gaudens’ sculpture was in the tradition of Roman and Renaissance equestrian monuments, which conferred authority and nobility on their subjects. Despite the neglect of the statue, though, Sherman’s posture still said, Conqueror, and Liberator.

Sherman is probably best known for his scorched-earth march through Georgia to the sea in 1864. In the process he also freed slaves from the plantations he destroyed, and redistributed to some 40,000 African-Americans a section of land on the Atlantic coast from Charleston, S.C. to the St. Johns River in Florida, giving each family 40 acres and loaning them mules to work the land. He had no particular sentiment for the people he had helped to free, but he did it because it was his duty.

After the Civil War ended he went West, where there was already heated conflict between indigenous peoples and white European settlers over possession of territory. As with his march to the sea, his record in the West was one of unapologetic ferocity.

He once wrote that “the more I see of these Indians, the more convinced I am that they will all have to be killed, or maintained as a species of pauper.”

In the six weeks since the violence in Charlottesville, Va., when a march by white supremacists protesting the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee resulted in numerous injuries and the death of a young female counter-protester, I’ve thought often about Sherman’s monument, and the perennial argument over who gets to claim history.

There has been a robust, sometimes contentious, national debate over the future of Confederate monuments. And it hasn’t ended with the Confederacy: Washington and Jefferson, both Founding Fathers but also slave owners, have been pulled in and out of the argument. Columbus has been a lightning rod for years.

How do we weigh historical context against modern sensibilities? Do we destroy, remove or conserve public memorials and monuments? What stays, what goes? How do we put objects in context? What do we do with figures, like Sherman, Washington and Jefferson, whose records of service to their country are complex, and not easily simplified to all good, or all bad?

Some conversations over the past week with art historians and educators in the Upper Valley suggest some more nuanced ways to look at a fraught issue in an era in which the public temperature and rhetoric, as Katherine Hart, senior curator of collections at the Hood Museum said, run high.

Since Charlottesville, cities and towns across the U.S. have moved more quickly to take down monuments and statues of men who led the Confederacy.

While most of these are in the South, some have been removed, or await removal, in California, Massachusetts, Montana, Washington and Wisconsin, among other states where you might not expect to find Confederate memorials, according to The New York Times.

But not everyone is happy about the development, or sure where it will lead. President Donald Trump tweeted that it was “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”

One can’t change history, he went on, but one can learn from it. Further, he tweeted, where does the process stop?

These aren’t new arguments by any means: they go back to ancient Rome, where statues to emperors, none of whom exhibited a democratic bent, still stand.

Over the centuries, societies in revolt or retrenchment have destroyed the icons that represent the status quo, whether in the American or French revolutions, the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s or after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“Most controversies over works of art in the public sphere are politics by other means,” said Mary Coffey, an art history professor who specializes in U.S. and Latin American art and culture.

To contest the role of monuments is one way to express grievance when a population is frustrated by its lack of power and unequal treatment under the law, she said.

Or, to look at it another way, when an authoritarian regime, or population, wants to intimidate it relies not only on military force but also on its public monuments and buildings, its propaganda.

“Because they are in the public sphere, monuments stand in for a broader systemic problem,” Coffey said. But in her view there is “not a one-size-fits-all fix for this particular kind of controversy.”

Bringing down Confederate monuments will not, by itself, solve any of the broader societal problems, Coffey said. But, as an educator, Coffey added, it’s her obligation to call attention to the context in which they were erected.

There are times when one has to separate the image projected from the object, said John Stomberg, director of the Hood Museum. “Sometimes the object has a value itself as being part of the culture from a certain time.”

If there were a new discovery of a bust of, say, Napoleon, Caligula or Genghis Khan, art historians would distinguish between the subject and the form the memorial took. “We can separate between those two and we often have to,” Stomberg added.

As an art historian whose mission is to preserve, he does not want to see objects destroyed, although he understands the emotions and debate. That said, part of the dilemma of what to do with contested objects, he said, “turns on display and how we read that display.”

At Gettysburg National Military Park, in Pennsylvania, where there are memorials and monuments to both Confederate and Union soldiers on the battlefield, the protocol is clear.

Unless directed by legislation, “it is the policy of the National Park Service that these works and their inscriptions will not be altered, relocated, obscured, or removed, even when they are deemed inaccurate or incompatible with prevailing present-day values,” wrote acting superintendent Bill Justice in an email.

Then there are the monuments to people and events so shameful and horrific that no one would argue about whether they should be removed.

One wouldn’t go to Germany and expect to find statues of Hitler or any of his functionaries. Post-war, the Federal Republic banned display of the swastika and publication of Mein Kampf, and turned some public sites closely associated with the Third Reich into venues for education or commemoration of the regime’s victims.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, statues of Lenin and Stalin were taken down. In Spain, there is still vociferous argument over removing monuments to Franco, and renaming streets associated with his henchmen, according to a 2016 New York Times article. In Chicago, according to the Chicago Tribune, there is a call to remove a statue of an Italian aviator given to the city by Mussolini and erected in 1934. (In the following year the aviator would participate in the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.)

If the majority of Americans applaud the decision to remove monuments to Hitler, Lenin and Stalin, why quarrel then with removing monuments to a system that despotically enslaved millions of Africans in the Americas?

Slavery had long tentacles, and led to a deep societal and cultural trauma, not only for African-Americans but also, one could argue, for a nation that is still struggling with inequality and pervasive institutional racism.

To claim special dispensation for such statuary under the rubric “heritage” goes only so far.

The discussion over monuments does perform a public service in drawing our attention to the fact that the U.S. has never quite reckoned honestly with its creation myth. Germany was forced after the war to expiate its recent tortured history. If the U.S. were to examine and uncover the history of slavery and Jim Crow and the complex, violent, uneasy history of European settlement displacing Native populations, the country, for all the strides made in the past 50 years, might have progressed further toward some kind of reconciliation.

And, if we look at monuments to Columbus, Jefferson, Washington and Lee, shouldn’t we also be looking at monuments of other European explorers and colonizers? The French, the Spanish, the Dutch?

What about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is judged to be one of the greatest American presidents, but who also signed the order that forcibly interned American citizens of Japanese descent? Winston Churchill is commemorated for defying and holding off Hitler, but his record of upholding imperial rule in India is fraught. Both men are amply commemorated with statuary.

That these two figures can be simultaneously admired and, in some quarters, reviled suggests just how complex humans are, and how complicated it is to wrestle with their legacies.

Perhaps modern eyes, suggested Henry Duffy, the curator at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, focus to the exclusion of other factors on the individual subject and his virtues and vices, rather than on what he represented to the country as a whole during his lifetime.

When Sherman retired and Saint-Gaudens went to do his portrait, Duffy said, he was considered a “national hero and it was a great honor for Saint-Gaudens to meet him.”

Saint-Gaudens was not solely preoccupied with memorializing Sherman as an individual. As an heir to the long tradition of artists making heroic sculpture, he wove in classical imagery and allegory to make a universal statement about the nature of heroism, character, sacrifice and duty. And that would have been understood by the people viewing the monument, Duffy said.

But, with the growing emphasis on individual expression in art between and after the two world wars, Duffy said, art became less dedicated to the expression of cultural progress or themes.

And that has made it more challenging for some modern viewers to look at monuments with the same degree of earnestness and understanding of classical tropes that might permit us to look at them through a broader lens.

“That is an area that maybe people don’t know to look for anymore, people don’t see allegory so easily anymore,” said Duffy.

But, he added, it’s inevitable that our view of historic figures and the ways in which they are depicted continually shift.

Although it is not a monument, the Hovey Murals, which belong to Dartmouth College, point to one way of dealing with a fraught legacy.

The murals, painted in the late 1930s by alumnus Walter Beach Humphrey, were a pointed response to Jose Clemente Orozco’s fresco series The Epic of American Civilization, which Orozco painted in 1934 in the basement of Baker Library.

Dartmouth is the only college in the U.S., said Hart, where there are a mural and a counter-mural in place. But one is on public view, and the other, the Hovey Murals, in the basement of the Class of 1953 building, formerly Thayer Dining Hall, is not.

Orozco was a monumental talent working on an epic scale taking on a grand theme, the colonization and settlement of the Americas. But, at the time, his murals aroused among some Dartmouth alumni considerable anger and distaste.

According to a Hood Museum history, The Hovey Murals at Dartmouth College, Humphrey had persuaded then-President Ernest Martin Hopkins to let him paint murals that he felt were more representative of the college’s spirit and ethos than Orozco’s critique of the colonial settlement of the Americas.

The Hovey Murals are the polar opposites of the Orozco murals in almost every way. Named for the composer of a college drinking song, the murals are a cartoon-like retelling of the founding of the college in 1769 by Eleazar Wheelock, whose initial intention was to educate Native peoples.

The superficially cheerful scenes and kitschy style of the Hovey Murals are what you might expect to see in Depression-era post offices, hotels and railroad and bus stations, advertising local attractions or historical sites.

But they also trade in inaccurate and insulting stereotypes of the era: paternalistic, benign whites, uncouth or drunken Native men in breech cloths and Native women coyly posed half-naked, all against a backdrop of New England mountains, rivers and brilliant foliage while charming bear, deer and raccoons poke their noses into the scenes.

By the time Bruce Duthu arrived on campus, in the mid-1970s, as one of 10 American Indian students in a class of perhaps 1,000, admitted as part of the college’s Native American Studies program initiated by then-president John Kemeny, the Hovey Murals were, he said in an interview, “very contested space.”

Duthu, a legal scholar and a professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth and an associate dean of the faculty for International Studies and Interdisciplinary Programs, as well as a former law professor at Vermont Law School, grew up as part of the United Houma Nation of Louisiana.

He was educated in a tri-partite, segregated school system: one system for African-Americans, one for whites and one for Native Americans. The schools were not desegregated until 1969.

In his years as an undergraduate (he graduated in 1980) the Hovey Murals, in a room used as a dining hall and then for entertainment, were a subject of constant discussion.

“We didn’t want to be censors but we wanted to look at them with a critical eye,” he said. Duthu was one of a council of Native students who, he said, expressed that the “space shouldn’t be used for the purpose it was intended for;” namely dining, parties, fraternity drinking and entertainment.

Rather, the students preferred that the room be used as a way to educate students about the insidious, pernicious effect that such crude and notably unrealistic depictions could have on students of color and whites alike. For students of color the murals are an unalloyed depiction of white superiority masquerading as puerile jollity; for some whites, they may reaffirm beliefs about how people of color are regarded.

By 1979, the room was closed and the mural covered with panels. In the early 1990s, according to the Hood history of the murals, the panels were removed. And, after prolonged discussion, in 2008 it was agreed that the room could be opened only under certain conditions.

“We treat that as art storage,” said Stomberg. “We don’t destroy it, scholars can come see it, but to some extent, putting things on public view is synonymous with endorsement. But we don’t want to endorse these murals; or deny their existence.”

Coffey has taught the murals to her students. The reaction can range, she said, from deep emotion and tears to “these aren’t as bad as I thought they would be.” She prepares students for what they are going to see, and asks them to respond respectfully to one another when opinions differ.

“I’m against destroying them,” she said. “If we destroy them we would be unable to understand the culture of the college in the ’30s, and even today. Having them physically extant is helpful. That’s my reason for not wanting them dismantled.”

The solution that the college arrived at, which is to bring students in to talk about the murals, and to allow scholars to visit, but not to permit wider use, “has been our provisional solution, to destroy the context in which they were intended to be used or seen.”

Of course, as Hart pointed out, because the Hovey Murals are in a private, not public, space, the college has greater latitude over their control. Public monuments in public spaces present a different challenge.

Once you begin teasing apart the threads that feed into the debate over Whose Monument Is This Anyway, Duthu said, the task is infinitely delicate.

“I don’t think anyone would disagree that as a nation we can stand to learn more about our history,” he said.

But does sweeping all monuments, memorials and symbols into one grab-bag, or taking them down, always make sense?

“Which vehicle do we want to use? There’s a certain superficiality about the whole debate. Does it make us feel better? Has it obliterated racism?” Duthu said.

As important as the issue is, he said, it can also distract Americans from looking at the more intractable problems of unequal treatment under the law, and policing and law enforcement.

To leave monuments “untouched and unanalyzed doesn’t work, but the mechanics of removing them skates around and elides the deeper conversation we should be having,” Duthu said.

There is a distinction to be made, Duthu said, between cultural artifacts and catalysts or drivers of violence and inequality.

Prior to murdering nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, Dylann Roof posted images of himself wrapped in the Confederate flag. And over the years, although not recently, Duthu has seen some Dartmouth students who have persisted in wearing T-shirts bearing the now-retired image of a scowling Indian chief mascot.

Such aggressive images, Duthu pointed out, “are saying, You don’t belong here, I will denigrate you,” — and worse.

A Columbus statue is, he said, “worthy of a different kind of conversation. But can we pause and lower the temperature?”

In a social media atmosphere of implacable opinion, but little subtlety or nuance, and a disdain, even contempt, for points of view different than our own, we should not be reluctant to have the monuments debate (or any debate), but we should be more skeptical of our deep-seated dogmas.

I haven’t seen Sherman’s statue in perhaps five years, but over time as I read his memoirs and delved more deeply into his history, I came to an obvious conclusion:

What I thought I knew was incomplete and often in error, and what I did not know was vast. If one can relinquish one’s absolute certainty, and allow for ambiguity, more light comes in.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.