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Contemplating the meaning of monuments


When I read about the white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, violently opposing the city’s plan to remove the Robert E. Lee statue, it brought me back 30 years when I lived in Richmond, Virginia.

I attended graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University in the sculpture and extended media department. Monument Avenue was a few blocks from the urban university. It is an impressive boulevard with gigantic statues of confederate generals from the Civil War. The faculty and students had many interesting discussions about the “public art” on Monument Avenue, whether the number of horse legs touching the ground had meaning and what the real purpose of the statues was.

Academically, we debated the quality of the work and whether to call it sculpture, statues or monuments. They are created by skilled sculptors and used to memorialize an event or a person. In the western United States, our monuments more often memorialize a special place like Canyons of the Ancients or Little Bighorn battlefield. The philosopher Arthur Danto wrote a clear and insightful comparison: “We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget. Monuments commemorate the memorable and embody the myths of beginnings. Memorials ritualize remembrance and mark the reality of ends.”

I moved to Virginia from Montana and began to wonder what it would have been like to grow up in the shadows of oversized monuments depicting Gen. Philip Sheridan, George Armstrong Custer and John Milton Chivington, the U.S. Army leaders in the American Indian wars. Chivington actually fought in the Civil War against the Confederate army and opposed slavery but was resolute to eradicate the Native American population. If I grew up with these monuments, would I think about the history of the American Indian wars differently? Would the message these monuments convey, that it is OK to memorialize a history that “was on the wrong side of humanity” – so eloquently stated by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, impact more?

The current mayor of Richmond, Levar Stoney, suggests that the Monument Avenue statues require context – “an explanation of what they actually are, who built them, why they were built and how they came to preside over the culture of this city.”

Stoney has started a dialogue with community members to see how Monument Avenue can be contextualized so new generations can get the bigger picture of the rich and brutal history of Richmond. We can’t erase our ugly history in the country, but we can understand it has context.

When I moved to Durango, I contemplated the presence of the large, cartoon Native American figure on Ninth Street. It was created as a roadside sign in the 1950s for the Chief Restaurant. At the time, the neon figure was about 20 feet tall and his arm waved and his eyes flashed. The historic sign now points to Toh-Atin Gallery, a local purveyor of Native American art. Does this give it context? I wonder what the local Native American kids thought of the sign when it was first erected.

Visual images, whether statues, road signs or images we see on the flat screen, are very powerful tools. An important part of arts education is learning to question what we are seeing and how we understand images. I often have more questions than answers. As intelligent beings, we need to keep a dialogue open about how and what imagery affects our lives and our communities, what it really represents and in what context it belongs.

Sandra Butler is the education director at the Durango Arts Center.