So, exceptionally I have broken my own golden rule and produced a 2-part text on this subject given its depth, complexity and the realisation that my first pass omitted more than it covered.
As a white working class male, I am inevitably hoist by my own petard on these topics, but what the heck, I am proposing neither a monotheistic doctrine, nor do I claim a monopoly on the narratives. The meaning and significance of statuary is something I haven’t covered hugely, and we do well to remember that outside of a Western cultural context, re-presenting the human form can also be considered as an idolatrous or sacrilegious act.
So going back a bit (quite a bit), statuesque representations of the human form can perhaps first become identifiable in the country we now know as Germany, some 35,000 years ago, in the form of the Löwenmensch figurine. Leaping forward to around 9,000 BCE we have Urfa Man (modern Turkey) and at about 6700 BCE, the ‘Ain Ghazal figures (now Jordan). In summary, and skipping a few thousand years and a raft of civilisations there are now some very real and present questions about our human and often less than-humane history.
Recently I have become increasingly curious that for the many, and for much of the past hundred years, statuary has remained as an eddy within an anachronistic sculptural backwater, occasionally spinning uneventfully to the surface of consciousness, but generally existing as monumental wallpaper, like some street furnishing equivalent of anaglypta.
One might legitimately argue that this (lack of) perception emerged when the cultural spin-dryer of conceptual art centrifugally flung statuary to the extremities of figuration, where it has largely remained ever since. 1960’s Classic Conceptualism also brought about seismic changes to art, and to the teaching of art in Western art schools away from the commemorative/colonial towards the catalytic/self-critical1. Either that or statuary became the classical/straight-man prop for a culturally irreverent foil2. It is certainly true that (with a very few exceptions), the straight figurative statuary makers from the 1950’s onwards faced an uphill struggle for artistic credibility, and an accompanying livelihood. This in the face of an art which was increasingly critical, mixed-media and time-based, in short, the smart beast we have come to know affectionately as contemporary art.
In the midst of a global pandemic, few might have predicted that the widely distributed alleged (at the time of writing) misdeeds of the upholders of the law, re-lit the fuse globally on the chronically unstable concoction racial inequality, white privilege, historic and modern slavery, colonial and non-colonial ethnic cleansing and mistaken nationhood. #BlackLivesMatter not only re-awakened after its initial founding in 2013, but also served as a multiplier that placed under the microscope a whole raft of shady colonialist dealings and their physical manifestations in bronze, stone and iron. In this way, statuary became.
The extraordinary fact is that the likenesses and unsavoury politics/acts/ethics of ‘worthies’ such as Baden-Powell, Churchill, U.S. Presidents (at Mt Rushmore) and Indro Montanelli are no longer hidden in plain sight, but are revealed for all to see. The question of who owns history and who has the right to maintain the dominant narratives in current and former empires is now subject to a withering, and frequently divisive, scrutiny. But to state this as the blinkin’ obvious doesn’t really solve the issue of the notion of Truth or rather Truths of history, and my own incrementally increasing anxiety in the pursuance of the aforementioned is that they are, conceptually at least, parallel lines. What I mean by this should not necessarily be defined as the ultimate spiritual mechanic cop-out positions with everyone having their own truth, or of each of us being at the centre of our own universe. Rather, truth (and history) is more likely vacillating and morphing and getting disconnected and wrongly reconnected by the plethora of authors, search engine optimisation tools, conspiracy theorists and more or less malevolent actors on the local, national and world stage.
Put another way, I would assert that if one pursues the current lines of inquiry into the evolving values of history in this way, i.e. by interrogating the past (imperfect) through the lens of the present (perfect), one almost inevitably ends up not with a reconciled, agreed or inclusive definition of history, but rather an increasingly pixelated one - likely accompanied by an increasing cacophony of sectarian rants about the shameful/glorious past. My entirely inconclusive conclusion is that I don’t ask you to trust me on our current perilous state of affairs, instead, for a sobering and salutary read, look to Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance3: An Inquiry into Values’ and the psycho-philosophical Sargasso we are drifting into. Statues really are the visible least of it.
1 See: Lippard, Lucy R. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972.
2 Can be seen in the works of a whole range of artists including the works of Ian Hamilton Finlay, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Claudio Parmiggiani et al.
3 Pirsig, Robert M. Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Toronto ; New York :Bantam, 1975.