(reposted from http://sites.northwestern.edu/artpolitics/, originally posted September 7, 2017)
Among other things, I teach and write about public art. It’s strangely difficult to define “public art.” It may be understood as art found in public space and freely accessible to all, but it typically also refers to art that’s funded by public money—which is to say taxpayer money. Less often, it refers to art made by and for “the people” in a more comprehensive sense. And art that exists in the public sphere often galvanizes conversations around major social issues. This is happening now with the question of the removal of monuments to the Confederacy.
Just because a work of public art has existed does not mean it has the right to continue to exist. When art enters the public sphere as a representative of some sort of public will, it’s not just a work of art in museum storage that can depend on institutional context to maintain its existence. It is properly subjected to public scrutiny and public discussion. It may be subject to removal. When the authorities fail to act, it is understandable that people take matters into their own hands.
The history of the monuments themselves is, more often than not, that of a particularly ideologically racist moment in the history of a nation founded in racist beliefs: a moment in which the white people in power decided to make a public statement of support for those who fought to continue to have the right to enslave other humans, to dehumanize them and treat them as property. Which is to say: to publicly send the message to the descendants of those who were enslaved that their towns, cities, and states remember fondly a time when they were still enslaved, remember proudly those who fought to preserve that state of affairs, remember heroics on the battlefield in the service of a glorious lost cause.
In other words, these monuments say this: if you are African American, this public space is not for you. It says: this place celebrates horrible crimes against your ancestors. It cheers your continued subjugation.
THERE IS NOTHING BEAUTIFUL IN THIS.
The out-and-out, unabashed racists are clear about why they want these monuments preserved. But if you are white and you are expressing concern about history, about tradition, about aesthetics, if you are saying “this is not what these statues mean to me,” if you are saying “aren’t there more important things to be focusing on?” here’s the thing: You don’t get to decide.
You don’t get to decide.
That is what is really at stake here, and that is why it is so hard. Losing history is easy; we let history drift away all the time. But the history of the Confederacy, in particular, is in no danger of being lost. It’s the investments of the present that people, and I mean white people, and I include liberals, are scared to lose: demons of the present and not (only) the past. History is not being lost. What’s being lost (for whites) is an imaginary consensus around it. What’s being lost is the feeling of easy ownership of the public sphere, the sense that you can debate this question or not within yourself, but regardless, you can go on undisturbed in the confidence that whatever you decide, or whatever it means to you—is what it means.