I promised myself that the next presentation in my alphabetical series would be one where I reminded you about ancient Egypt, where they had no word for art, and therefore no way of separating their lives from what was on their walls and in their statuary. If not to all people then at least to the denizens of the court and the temples, their deities were too much a part of their lives to be thought of in terms of mere representation. But here I have called up instead a sculpture by Soviet artist Vera Mukhina. If anything its Socialist Idealism* is deliberately alienating to its observers, maintaining a distance like a Brecht drama. It is didactic, metaphoric rather than depictive. No real life industrial and agricultural workers strode, hammer and sickle joined aloft, into the future, braving the strong but conquerable wind of counter-revolution. Mukhina’s work is monumental and gripping, the apparent construction lines on the figures echoing the concrete blocks of the plinth. It is an exercise in awe.
When Bolshevism faltered and fell, much of its iconography and monumental art fell too. A living sculptor mounted a solo protest in East Germany, as his statues of Lenin were dismantled. He held a placard with this phrase upon it: Wann brennen die Bücher? “When will the books burn?” This was especially pointed in Germany where, in living memory, Nazis had made bonfires out of printed works they considered racially and ideologically impure, hoping to blot them out of history.
Erasure and iconoclasm is nothing new. Akhenaten’s name was chiselled out of his cartouches when the cult of Amun re-established itself. People calling for purity and simplicity in churches smashed stained-glass windows in 17c England. An Ottoman bey in Cairo was so incensed at the smug face of the Sphinx of Gizeh that he had his soldiers fire cannonballs at it. The Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan. At the fall of Saddam Hussein, his self-aggrandising statues were toppled. Little, if anything, remains of the public iconography Third Reich – there’s poetic justice for you, the erasers erased.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that people are pulling down statues now. The main difference is that it is not being done in the name of erasure, but of reclamation. There is no attempt being made to write British slavers or American slave-owners out of history. The object is to write into history the elements that have been lost and, worse, deliberately ignored.
Counter-protestors are guarding statues, complaining that the history of a people is being expunged. They have a point, but it’s an extremely weak one. The history that is being expunged is nothing more than a detail of extant archaeology. The only reservation that one can possibly have to the demolition of such statues is that this ‘hard copy’ element of archaeology will not remain. The interest is not in the culture that that the subjects of the statuary represent – the quondam acceptability of the slave trade, the ownership of human beings by other human beings, the regarding of someone as chattel by virtue of their skin colour and worthless once that concept of chattel had been removed – such a culture is vile in itself, as are the retentions and reverberations of that culture in our own time. The real interesting factor is the sub-culture, mainly of the 19c and early 20c, of erecting statues per se. That was a historical sub-period, particularly in bourgeois Western Europe and in European North America, that one might call The Age of Statues. It is so tied to that era that later statues commemorating, say Winston Churchill or Donald Dewar, seem almost anomalous.
In an age when the knock-on effects of slavery and colonialism are still felt clearly and deeply in people’s daily lives, it is understandable that things held to be symbols of those oppressions should be targeted. We are seeing a movement that does not want to erase or even revise history but rather to expand and augment it. The targeted statuary will, we know, be archived. It will not be forgotten like the face of the Sphinx. Books will not burn – just as you can still access the writing of Hitler, Lenin, Mao, and umpteen-hundred other problematical figures of controversial history, you will be able in the future to find photographs of statues of Robert E. Lee or Edward Colston standing right where they used to.
I don’t know, and haven’t bothered to find out, whether the statue of the industrial and agricultural workers by Vera Mukhina is still standing. If it is or if it isn’t, the fact remains that you and I are now looking at an image of it on a screen. To you it may represent naive socialist optimism, lost idealism, naked Bolshevist propaganda, Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire,” or Leon Trotsky’s “degenerated worker’s state.” It remains striking art in its own right, powerful, typical of the 20c. The operative word there being “remains.”
* I don’t use the term “Socialist realism” for this style, which goes way beyond the realistic to the romantic.