You can’t go anywhere anymore without seeing an example of the ‘statue problem’ – namely, the question of what we should do with monuments to parts of our national past which are now seen as less than flattering.
In the USA, the debate over the future of the southern states’ Confederate monuments rages on.
Guardian journalist Afua Hirsch, among others, recently called for Nelson’s Column to be torn down as a shameful celebration of slavery and imperialism in the UK.
Antipathy to Russia in Poland’s ruling nationalist party, ‘Law and Justice’, has created a new row over Communist-era monuments in the former Soviet satellite.
Statues of Stalin and Vladimir Lenin have also been toppled in Ukraine, as part of pro-European revolutionary activity that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. In Odessa, a monument to Lenin was converted into an effigy of Darth Vader by artist Alexander Milov (see above).
A statue of Franz Joseph I once again occupies a prominent position in Prague, a century after Czechoslovak independence made the commemoration of an Austro-Hungarian emperor unimaginable. Other figures remain unpalatable. For years, Czech officials had argued over what to do with the plinth, which once supported a statue of Joseph Stalin.
Hungary has recently removed Communist-era statues from their pedestals and placed them in Memento Park, an open-air museum outside Budapest. Lithuania’s Grutas Park is similar.
Even Germany still has the odd problem. In the summer of 2017, in the village of Herxheim am Berg, a still-chiming church bell was discovered, bearing a swastika and an inscription in praise of Hitler. Some called for the bell’s removal, others for its protection as a relic of a shameful national history. The village is still deciding what to do.
But the question – what should we do with these monuments to our past? – has no easy answers.
If we choose to leave the statues standing, we cause offence – I cannot imagine a single Jew being happy to walk past a statue of Hitler, and there is no good reason why anyone should be subject to that.
On the other hand, if we remove the statues, we STILL cause offence – the claims of historical revisionism or artistic censorship are impossible to repudiate completely given that we would literally be removing sculptural representations of our history, besides which, unappealing as many of them are, there are still groups who approve of the ideologies represented by these statues, and, from a liberal standpoint at least, it is not up to us to enforce our concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ onto others who are not attempting to do such a thing to us. After all, preaching hatred, anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, sexism, imperialism etc. is a very different matter to practising it.
Now, having said that it’s a question with no easy answers, I’m now going to try and answer it.
I suppose it comes down to the visibility of the statue, and not the statue in itself. Is it right to unwillingly subject people to any statue? Would you force someone to tour an art gallery if they didn’t like the art on display? And, conversely, can we take offence at things people do as individuals in private? I think the answer to all those questions should be ‘no’.
Following the basic principle of liberalism – that of having individual freedom insofar as it does not become a license to inflict your freedom on others – a person has the right to create a statue but does not have the right to display it in a public place (as this would make it impossible for the public to ignore, and individual ignorance is within the right of individual freedom).
As such, the only ideologically consistent, universalizable solution is to ban ALL public monuments, regardless of popular dis/approval, and place them all inside museums, art galleries, and other less visible spaces, so that they are only viewed by those who choose to view them.
The approach taken by Hungary and Lithuania is along these lines, though theirs is limited to those monuments associated with their WWII/Cold War pasts. Therefore, theirs seem to be the best available solution – one that leaves everyone slightly unhappy, but ultimately still free to admire whatever statues they like.