Transtruction: artistic evolution of Lee statue faces final hurdle
"It seems to me that the project could be considered both a recontextualization and a destruction of the Lee statue," says Prof. Thomas Brown.
Update: 4/29/22 - a judge ruled that the lawsuit can move forward. Ruling also indicated the city may have violated the state's Procurement Act. More here.
Well, here we go again. Lee statue defenders have settled on a new argument to try and thwart the City's decision to give the statue to the Jefferson School for its Swords into Ploughshares project, which would melt the bronze statue down into blocks for the creation of new works of art. While this particular group, which also fought to prevent the Lee statue's removal, has certainly shown a zeal for litigation, its always been a losing argument that has had to rely on technicalities in state code and ignoring the historic pain the false symbolism of these public monuments has caused, and so their efforts have mostly served to highlight just how important it is that they come down and face re- and decontexulisation. Still, they persist, now claiming that the re- and decontexulisation project Charlottesville has chosen for its Lee statue violates a provision in a newly passed state law allowing localities to remove Confederate monuments that prohibit their destruction.
“The Lee monument may end up necessarily altered, no longer the original historic work of art,” their complaint reads. “But it will not be destroyed.”
“Our aim is not to destroy an object, it’s to transform it,” explained Andrea Douglas, the Jefferson School's executive director, in a Charlottesville Tomorrow story ahead of the City Council vote. “It’s to use the very raw material of its original making and create something that is more representative of the alleged democratic values of this community, more inclusive of those voices that in 1920 had no ability to engage in the artistic process at all.”
However, the lawsuit raises a question that even curators and art historians might have trouble answering: is melting down the Lee statue into bronze blocks to create alternative works of art re- or decontextualizing the Lee statue or destroying it?
"What an interesting question," says W. J. T. Mitchell, an English and art history professor at the University of Chicago, and editor of Critical Inquiry, a quarterly devoted to critical theory in the arts and human sciences, adding that he would need some time to ponder the question. "I don’t know if this is just a form of destruction, or something much more radical. But I do like the idea of melting down the offending statue and recycling the metal."
"It seems to me that the [Swords into Ploughshares] project could be considered both a recontextualization and a destruction of the Lee statue," adds Thomas Brown, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, who was a signatory to an amicus brief at the Virginia Supreme Court on the cases related to the Lee statue in Richmond. "It's a recontextualization in the sense that the Lee statue and its story will contribute to the significance of the new work. It's a destruction in the sense that the Lee equestrian will no longer exist. I see that Swords into Ploughshares uses the word "transformation," which also seems apt."
Idiotically, the complaint also continues to argue that the Lee statue's fate was the result of local public opinion and the City’s political leadership "shifting like a weathervane" after the Unite the Right Rally in August 2017, and that before that a majority of the community, "including a descendant of slaves," they point out, were fine with letting both the Lee and Jackson statues remain where they stood. A position oblivious to the way our national understanding of, and engagement with, these symbols has been evolving.
Last year, after winning the 2019 Watson Brown Prize for the best book published on the Civil War era, Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America, Brown wrote an essay about several examples of the relationship between re-examination of Civil War monuments and the creation of new art. As he points out, in communities across the country the imaginative engagement with these doomed monuments, which have been coming down with increasing regularity since the killing of Trayvon Martin in February 2012, and especially since the Charleston massacre of June 2015, the Charlottesville violence of August 2017, and the murder of George Floyd, has already been well underway. From artist Kara Walker's meditation on Stone Mountain in 2015 and Kehinde Wiley's Rumors of War sculpture in 2019, to the community performance piece that engagement with the Lee statute on Monument Avenue in Richmond became, the artistic exploration of the ways these toxic symbols can be transformed is evolving, and may indeed require the kind of ‘transtruction’ involved in the Jefferson School's plan. Ironically, the lawsuit filed by the Lee statue defenders revealed that the statue, according to the City, has already been moved to a foundry and been “broken up, though apparently not yet melted down.”
"Charlottesville is in a position to create an important new example of imaginative engagement with these statues," says Prof. Brown. "I'll be interested to follow the latest Charlottesville lawsuit."
Who's to say that the "new art" will not be an eye sore? I think the last proposal from the folks at Jefferson Heritage was a large ball and chain, a contextualization that reeks of 10th graders hanging out at the lockers.