Art, History & the Politics of Memory

Art, History & the Politics of Memory

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Julien Meyrat
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Julien Meyrat

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Dialogue: Art, History, and the Politics of Memory with Regards to Confederate Monuments

This past August, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings established a civic task force to review the status of Confederate monuments in the city’s public spaces, cemeteries, and streets. Though a number of relevant monuments within Fair Park were spared from removal, changes were suggested for Lee Park near Turtle Creek. It was recommended that the equestrian statue of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee be taken down and that the site in which it is located be renamed from Robert E. Lee Park to Oak Lawn Park. The task force consisted of artists, historians, and community leaders and represented various perspectives.

Among those appointed were Barvo Walker, a renowned sculptor based in Oak Cliff who is currently working on the memorial for the five police officers slain during an ambush in July 2016; and architect Bryce Weigand, FAIA, a former principal at GFF, and founder of Weigand Art and Architecture. Here, they share their perspectives on the controversy surrounding the Confederate statues and articulate their beliefs on whether public art can ever be stripped of its historic political meaning.

One way to appreciate a work of sculpture is to observe the way it interacts with the environment around it, such as how daylight strikes it or how it relates to the surrounding landscape. Removing a sculpture from its original site and placing it in a private indoor location eliminates this intended interaction. Does the sculpture lose its original meaning and expressive power as a result? Or are new meanings and aspects revealed in its new context?

Bryce: The establishment of Lee Park/Arlington Hall in the original Oak Lawn Park in 1936 was/is a unique and beautiful setting. The siting of Arlington Hall (a scaled-down version of the original) replicating the sloped terrain of Arlington National Cemetery accordingly has a commanding presence unlike other park buildings in Dallas.   

The Lee statue, with the accompanying youth, with its siting on a granite platform under trees with morning/eastern sunlight is/was striking. The engraving in the granite seat wall reads …“No calumny can ever darken His fame, for history has lighted His image with her everlasting lamp.”  This sentiment clearly was written by an admirer, likely with no input or voice from the oppressed at the time.

It is hard for one to accurately judge the attitudes of those who established this monument 81 years ago. Explaining the cultural setting with a more full and holistic narrative for both the Lee statue and Arlington Hall would be beneficial both from an artistic viewpoint as well as a fuller accounting of historical events.

From a pure artistic viewpoint, the Lee statue is considered the best double equestrian statue in the world. Alexander Phimister Proctor, sculptor from Denver and New York, was the premier animal sculptor of the last century. Mark Lemmon, a very prominent architect in Dallas, created the base and seat wall and was the designer of Arlington Hall. It was constructed during the period of the WPA (Work Progress Administration). President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the Lee monument at the time of the Texas Centennial celebrations.

From left: Julien Meyrat, AIA faciliates a discussion with Bryce Weigand, FAIA and Barvo Walker. Credit: Shirley Che

Barvo: Removing the Robert E. Lee sculpture from the environment in which it had been placed for some 81 years was wrong for many reasons. One of those reasons, and there are many, is that the beauty of the park is gone. The beauty of that cool green environment of the park which was so inviting is forever gone. The sculpture was like the focal point of a painting to that beautiful area of Dallas.

The artist, Proctor, did not create that wonderful sculpture to be indoors. One of the things that the sculptors try to create in a sculpture is movement. The way this sculpture was created—it had movement, oh, did it have movement, with the light and shadows of the leaves of the beautiful trees. It gave the feeling that the horses and men were alive, truly alive! 

Are we to stand by and allow political correctness to destroy any and all things that a few foolish people believe by so it gives them a sense of superiority?

Art is a physical manifestation of the cultural environment and the time in which it is created. A big part of this environment is the prevailing political context. At what point does a work of art escape its connection to its political origins and get valued by all people as worthy of preservation? When can the public appreciate a special place simply for its unique aesthetic qualities?

Barvo:  A hundred and 60 years should do! No one living had any sort of connection with the Civil War. Unfortunately there is a minority of people, using a beautiful object of art to punish a society—a society that had absolutely nothing to do with the Civil War. Also by doing this they are using political correctness to make a society feel guilty. The Germans have a word of it: schuldkult.

Part of the reason that the removal of Confederate statues has aroused much controversy may be due to the notion that history is about advancing a preferred political narrative. Put simply, history is written by its winners, with the losers defined at the mercy of the winners. The erection of these statues during the Jim Crow era and their subsequent removal today points to a dramatic reversal of the winners and losers. Art can both promote the political narrative of the winners as well as bring attention to the plight of the losers. But can art transcend these roles? Can it be appreciated outside of this ongoing dialectic of narratives?

Bryce:  Interestingly, the Confederate monuments memorialize the side of the losers – not the winners. As stated, the winners write most history.

The Confederate monuments all across the south honor those sacrifices of life and limb that were given by soldiers, not always in command of their “life or path.”   Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves.

Clearly, the story of the slaves themselves was not included or acknowledged at the time of the monuments’ installations. Taking the statues down does not remove the hurt or the long-term disenfranchisement. Telling the full story of the Civil War with other augmenting exhibits would help both explain the times then and the narrative today.   

The Confederate monument in Pioneer Park was constructed in 1897. It was relocated to the new location in 1961 when road construction moved it from then Old City Park. Three odes to battle are inscribed, referencing the cannons, anchors, and crossed sabers. The most poignant one, however, speaks to the loss of husband, brother, or son … “This stone shall crumble into dust ere the devotion of Southern Women be forgotten.”  

Again, no slave stories were told along with the loss of kinship. This monument was erected at a time of final reconstruction, when many veterans were dying off, the memory of their sacrifice and service was to be acknowledged and revered.

Barvo:  Yes, art transcends time. But one culture should not allow art to be destroyed by the sins of the past.

Credit: Shirley Che

Public art can serve to establish and reinforce myths and heroes critical to building a durable community that shares a strong common identity. They can instill a sense of pride and evoke certain virtues and ideals. The Robert E. Lee statue fulfilled all these roles for those who erected it, but several generations later it was deemed a relic of promoting myths and heroes completely at odds with current sensibilities. Are there new myths waiting to be commemorated? Must removing old statues be necessary to establish new myths to strengthen society?

Bryce:  I object to the word “myth.” As humans, we all have good and bad within us. We know right from wrong, generally. Sometimes we choose to do right, sometimes we choose to do wrong.

I would prefer to say, “Are there new truths to be told?”  One cannot err by telling the truth, but to consider creating “new myths” is totally without merit, value or substance.

Telling the story truthfully of the Civil War—or any other historical setting for that matter—will allow future generations to understand properly what happened, why, and what possible consequences it has for us today.

Barvo: Removing this wonderful work of art gives face to an overpowering myth. That is that people’s lives are made better, safer, more complete, and joyful if the sculpture is removed. Truth always overpowers myths! Therefore, for people to believe that their lives are made matter with the removal of the Lee statue is the greatest of myths, and a lie.

My question to those who called for the removal of the statue: How long will those myths of political power last?

Often, art is described as a kind of window into another realm, such as into one’s soul, time, nature, even God. It invites the viewer to look through this window and arrive at new meanings. Is it possible for Confederate statues to provide this kind of experience, even to those who vehemently opposed everything they stood for? Must public art always be inclusive?

Barvo: No! It is foolish to believe that public art should be inclusive. It should be viewed for what it is, the reflection of a monument in time which helps teach history, whether good or bad.

Going forward, what should communities bear in mind when embarking on a public art project?

Bryce: We need more public art, not less. We need a better, deeper understanding of history, not less. The story of America is complex, complicated, and messy. The world has been and will always be filled with differing opinions of what is right or wrong. The challenge for us today is to embrace all the stories, the history of both the good and bad. Tell all stories boldly and openly.


Julien Meyrat, AIA is an architect with Gensler.