It seems to have become a worldwide phenomenon recently, almost an epidemic – statue-smashing. It used to be just Islamic fundamentalists – the Taliban in Afghanistan, for example – but suddenly everyone seems to be doing it, and I have to tell you, I’m confused.
Of course, religious fanatics are still at it. In Turkey there’s been a spate of attacks on statues of Atatürk, the revered founder of the Republic. And in Sinop on the Black Sea coast, members of a local conservative religious foundation have taken exception to the effigy of an ancient Greek philosopher that stands on the outskirts of town, demanding its removal.
Well it’s easy to dismiss religious fundamentalists as cranks and nutcases, but clearly there are political motives at work too. We’ve been following with interest events in the USA, where violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia over some controversial statuary, and the trouble has apparently spread further afield. Hundreds of protestors gathered at the campus of North Carolina University insisting that a statue of a Confederate soldier be torn down. Adding fuel to the fire, a prominent businessman, politician and diplomat, Ray Mabus, called such images “monuments to treason” and insisted that they “must be removed now and forever”.
Meanwhile, a news item from Australia informed me that “there is fury” over a statue of Captain Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park. In this case, it’s not so much the figurine itself raising hackles, but the inscription on the pedestal claiming that the 18th century British explorer “discovered this territory”. Spokespersons for the indigenous aboriginal community are pointing out that the country wasn’t actually in need of discovering since there had been people living there for 60,000 years or so.
So who’s right, and who’s at fault? Clearly human beings love making graven images – have done since time immemorial – to remember a famous person, to commemorate an event, to show off their wealth or prestige, to worship in place of an invisible deity . . . Most of the time they sit discreetly on their plinths quietly collecting verdigris and bird droppings. Some people think having an enormous model of a carrot (yes, a carrot!) in the New Zealand town of Ohakune is a great idea. Others think it’s pretty stupid, but no one seems to get overcome with blind destructive hatred. Same goes for the giant lobster in Kingston, South Australia. Some local authority in Paris, France, had a 12-metre, 18-tonne bronze thumb erected in their neighbourhood, and I haven’t heard of any complaints. Akşehir in Turkey, birthplace of Nasrddin Hodja, contains several sculptures of the legendary folk philosopher, of which citizens are rather proud.
On the other hand, America’s one-time allies in Afghanistan, the Taliban, attracted much international ire when, a few years ago, they dynamited several large statues of Buddha at the ancient site of Bamiyan. It seems the heresies implicit in the Buddhas overrode any historical value they may have had – at least in the opinion of the dynamiters.
This, then, seems to be the nub of the problem. Carrots, lobsters and thumbs are relatively neutral when it comes to arousing emotional response, either positive or negative. Representations of religion, politics (and sex), however, stir strong feelings. In the years after the Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity, zealots of the new faith journeyed around the temples of earlier ages chiselling off female breasts and male appendages from carvings they considered immoral.
We in the post-modern world like to think of ourselves as more enlightened, but many of us have sympathy for the indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, who may not have felt the same way about colonial invaders using superior technological might to steal their land and birthright. So what to do about Captain Cook? Remove the statue? Edit the inscription? Is this, as one politician asserted, “Stalinist revision”, or belated sensitive recognition that the ancestors of the aboriginal inhabitants have a valid point?
What about that statue in the Black Sea town? Diogenes the Cynic is believed to have been born there in the early 5th century BCE when it was an Ionian colony, Sinope. Cynical he may have been, but the poor man can hardly be blamed for the tragic events that unfolded a century ago after the Greek military invasion of Anatolia. Feelings still run high in some circles, on both sides of the Aegean, but I suspect current objections to Diogenes represent a small minority of opinion. Attitudes to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, however, are a far more controversial issue in Turkey. For decades a small elite backed by a powerful military controlled the country, fostering a cult-like adoration of the national hero to suppress religious and political opposition to their rule. I read an interesting article the other day in a Turkish newspaper entitled, “Let’s just stop abusing Atatürk.” The writer, Nazlan Ertan, was finding fault with the pseudo-faithful, who decorate their car rear windows with his signature, prefix their Facebook accounts with the initials TC, and claim to know how the great man would vote in elections and referenda if he were around today. And she has a point.
All of which brings me to the most recent controversy over symbolic statuary – the one currently raging in the United States over the question of whether representations of Confederate heroes or their cause should be permitted in public places. Personally, I don’t care one way or the other, but it seems to me that the issue has become a focus for the lovers and haters of President Donald Trump to vent their hyperactive spleens. And the man does seem to have polarised opinion in the USA in a way that few of his predecessors were able to do. What is clear is that there is still some feeling in Southern states of the old Confederacy that their cause was just, and they were unfairly treated. It seems also certain that the victors, as is generally the case, wrote the history books with their version of the story. Was slavery the only, or even the main issue over which the Civil war was fought? Were those soldiers of the Union really fighting for the rights of black Americans to be treated equally? I have read suggestions that Abe Lincoln himself wasn’t 100% certain about that. Were their opponents in the Confederate army all slave-owners or believers in the system?
More and more of American history is being shown up as mythology and politically motivated censorship. Books such as James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States (and its associated TV documentary series) and Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow, are highlighting serious cracks in the foundations of the American ideal. Maybe we should just pull down all the statues everywhere until we sort the whole business out.