People worry that we are erasing our history when Confederate statutes are removed from public spaces. When I hear this worry expressed, I wonder if people may be misinterpreting the role these statues play in different communities.
As an art historian, I understand both how art located in the public sphere functions differently from a work in a museum and how a sculpture’s meaning is informed by its historical context. Simply put, we are not altering history by removing these sculptures; instead, we are reconsidering how we visually identify ourselves as a society.
Some opponents have compared the removal of the Confederate statues to the ancient practice of damnatio memoriae, or the act of destroying images of the vanquished to symbolically neuter and kill. But the Civil War is long over and these Confederate statues were never intended to be portraits of rulers that would symbolize a governing power.
Instead, in the United States, we use monuments like these to create a visual story of who we are. Public works of art emphasize what we value as a society. And we express this all openly in the public sphere, in places to which we assume all citizens have access and where we assume we can freely discuss issues regarding public life. There are accepted rules that dictate the public sphere, and they frequently change over time, generally after much debate.
This is exactly what is occurring now. We are debating what imagery is appropriate to define the identity of our nation in the public realm. The monuments being questioned were mostly erected decades after the Civil War during times of great racial strife: in 1890-1930 and again in the late 1950s. They belong to those periods, not the period of the Confederacy.
The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, is located in a park that was used by whites only in that city’s segregated past. It is a memorial to the 1920s, a period of Jim Crow laws and “separate but equal” rules in Virginia.
Confederate statues — like the Confederate picket monument taken down by protesters last week in Durham, North Carolina — were often paid for by groups dedicated to the “Lost Cause” rhetoric of the early 20th century that downplayed the horrors of slavery. These groups were supported by white supremacists like the Klu Klux Klan, who gained in numbers in the early decades of the 20th century and were able to control access to the public sphere through the threat of lynching or other acts of violence against African-American communities.
This context — long after the ending of the war, in the midst of legal disenfranchisement of African-Americans and racial apartheid, and coinciding with the rise of organized white supremacy — informs the meaning of the statues and the decisions to place them in prominent locations associated with the public sphere like a park or a courthouse. The sculptures serve as a reminder of who controls those public spaces and of who may use them freely.
Think of the African-American children living in an adjoining segregated Charlottesville neighborhood who could not safely pass through the park where the statue of Lee has presided. Or, think of the generations of African-Americans walking under the Confederate picket to enter the Durham courthouse and what a chilling message was sent to them about equal access to justice under the law.
For historical preservation, please look to the numerous museums, battlefields like Gettysburg and historic homes throughout the country. These institutions are dedicated to archiving objects from the past so that they may be analyzed and used to educate communities about American history. Artifacts such as a Confederate statue would be explained and be given much-needed context in order to instruct. This is a different function from that of public monuments, which are intended to define a community’s sense of self.
The crowds in Charlottesville last weekend who claimed they were there to protest the removal of a Confederate statue ended up marching through town carrying torches and shouting Nazi slogans — to me, they did not seem to be great art lovers. They were there to project an image of white supremacy in the public sphere, just as these statues of Confederate leaders have done for decades.
Remove these statues that are meant to intimidate, lessen and demean. Put them in a museum so that we can understand their place in our history. And start creating a new visual identity in the public sphere that includes all Americans.
Jessica Sponsler is an assistant professor of art history at the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design in Lancaster. She has a master’s and doctoral degree in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.