Let Artists Put Controversial Monuments in a New Light

It's not wise to try to erase history, but a little emotional distance is healthy.

Needs more goat.

Source: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

As controversy over Confederate monuments raged in the U.S., Americans turned to Europe in search of useful analogies. With so many bloodstained pages in its history books, the old continent is gradually moving beyond the "keep or destroy" dilemma in dealing with what the Germans call materielle Zeugnisse, or material witnesses, of history.

The removal of politically charged statues always seems the practical solution: Get them off public squares and there'll be more peace as various radicals are deprived of rallying points. Memorials, after all, are political statements first and works of art second. The town authorities in Marienfels in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate were relieved in 2004 when unknown people destroyed the memorial to an SS panzer corps, erected in the town in 1971 by a group of its veterans: It had come to be the center of neo-Nazi demonstrations. When no one wants to take the demolition work off a government's hands, it often feels compelled to act as the Baltic States did with Soviet statues that had focused the protest energy of pro-Russian minorities. No city or country wants a Charlottesville on its hands. 

Even the expectation of government removing a monument becomes controversial, but that doesn't last: People who used to rally around a statue won't be as drawn to an empty space. Berlin's former Lenin Square, which used to host a gigantic statue of the Russian revolutionary leader, is a good example: Once a scene of lively left-wing protests against the statue's removal, it is peaceful now as United Nations Square.

Demolition, however, presents a different kind of problem, a more long-term one. Will people have the same interest in the more disturbing stories from their country's past if the visual reminders are gone? Will as many people want to google General Lee or Ernst Thaelmann or King Leopold II of Belgium if their likenesses are removed from public squares? Any responsible democratic government should want to maintain people's interest in cautionary tales, not just in patriotism-inspiring stories.

Sometimes a direct approach works. The Czech town of Litomysl kept a statue of native son Zdenek Nejedly, a Communist education minister who oversaw purges in universities but who also did much to preserve his country's musical heritage; the authorities added a plaque saying Litomysl "appreciates the good and condemns the bad of his deeds." That, however, is a compromise that wouldn't quite work in cases where the good and the bad are a matter of heated and evolving public debate, nor when the "bad deeds" are more extreme. Leopold II is glorified as the builder of Brussels and abhorred as the man who, as the one-time private owner and ruthless exploiter of the country of Congo, was responsible for the death of some 10 million people there. A plaque saying Brussels "appreciates the good and condemns the bad" would probably be worse than no plaque at all.

Perhaps the best thing a modern society can do about controversial statues is to stop treating them as sacred or dangerous. Contemporary artists know about both desacralization and attracting attention. Sometimes letting them have a go at a memorial can help people ask the right questions about a historic figure.

In 2015, the Austrian art collective Steinbrener/Dempf & Huber was allowed to place the sculpture of a mountain goat on top of Hamburg's gigantic statue of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (its head alone is 6 feet tall). Bismarck is a classic case of "both good and bad": The creator of Germany's universal health care, he also helped create the arrogant, belligerent, powerful Germany that lost World War I. He's an inspiration to some German politicians and an imperialist abomination to others, the subject of myths and misconceptions. The goat lent him the devil's horns but also emphasized his mountainous importance. The sight was so striking that I couldn't help researching the goat and then the current views of Bismarck's historical role. That's apparently the reaction the Otto von Bismarck Foundation, which studies the statesman's heritage, expected. It commented: "There are two Bismarcks: the real one and the mythologized state founder. The first one is soiled by the unspeakable graffiti at the foot of the monument. On top of the second, an alpine split-hoof animal stands through July."

This year, Ukraine has pretty much completed its efforts to get rid of all Soviet statues. Some of them were removed (including a few that served as a focus of powerful constructivist urban ensembles), others clumsily remade into those of Ukrainian heroes. But one standard Lenin statue, located on the grounds of an Odessa factory, stands out: Local sculptor Alexander Milov reworked Lenin into a convincing Darth Vader. The traditional pose of a mass-produced Lenin -- hand grasping his jacket lapel -- is still recognizable to someone who grew up around these countless statues. But somehow it fits Vader's prideful stance.

More often than not, municipalities lack the courage to go ahead with this kind of art project. In Berlin, after the colossal Lenin on Lenin Square was decapitated as the first stage of removal, the Green Party proposed that the head of a different prominent international figure be put on the statue's shoulders every 10 years. Artist Manfred Butzmann suggested planting ivy at the statue's base and letting it grow over the headless Lenin. Both were excellent ideas -- but instead the statue was demolished. 

We should give German politicians their due: They decided against destroying many of the Communist statues in East Germany, learning from the experience of having purged all Nazi monuments. These days, one can still see the Thaelmanns and the Marxes, often defaced with competing graffiti but always reminding Germans of their experience with Soviet-style socialism. These statues are ripe for artistic reinterpretation that won't quite destroy their value as souvenirs of a darker time.

Letting artists loose at monuments is attractive because their ideas can be both bold and non-political. It is, however, a risky proposition in divided countries still refighting old battles. Irreverence implies a degree of public consensus and a certain distance from historic events that allows irony. The U.S. doesn't appear to be ready for this kind of thing yet, though the Civil War was fought during Bismarck's lifetime and before Lenin's. It's clear from the discussion of Confederate monuments that people still take sides in that war, and those who side with the winners don't want the losing side's monuments around -- an approach that can cause nasty aberrations. For example, Berlin has no Hitler monuments, yet the Soviet memorial at Treptower Park includes gilded quotations from Josef Stalin, Hitler's equal in ideologically-motivated ruthlessness -- but a victor. 

Perhaps, as a temporary solution, the U.S. could benefit from the 1990s idea put forward by Austrian artist Alfred Hrdlicka, who suggested East and West Germany exchange monuments. Uprooted and moved to the other side's home turf, monuments to different Civil War heroes could help heal the divisions and gradually bring about a more laid-back attitude toward the urban sculptures. Then art could take over.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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