The limitations of statues

With the Chicago Monuments Project report in and Columbus Day almost here, time to argue about statues some more.

A statue of German Enlightenment figure Gotthold Ephraim Lessing stands in Washington Park just south of the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center.

A statue of German Enlightenment figure Gotthold Ephraim Lessing stands in Washington Park just south of the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

So I was thinking about Gotthold Ephraim Lessing this morning and wondered what you make of him.

Are you an admirer? A critic?

What? You’ve never heard of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing? No! Perhaps his 1748 play will ring a bell: Der Junge Gelehrten, or “The Young Scholar.”

Still no? How can that be?! There’s a statue of him big as life in Washington Park. For almost a century.

Point made? Good. Statues are vastly overrated as tributes, or mnemonic devices, or anything other than hunks of bronze that sit neglected in parks providing roosts for pigeons.

Opinion bug


Well, I suppose they’re also something for people to bicker about. Endlessly. With Columbus Day closing in, and Lori Lightfoot’s kick-the-can-down-the-road Chicago Monuments Project bouncing back into view after two years of tumbling forward — in brief: keep the three Columbus statues mothballed and ditch 10 more that reek of white supremacy — I would be in danger of having my pundit card revoked if I didn’t flip my palm toward the air and glibly opine.

The 73-page report is nuanced. Summarizing it makes it sound more extreme than it actually is. When I first read news stories about about its findings, my takeaway was the commission managed the neat trick of finally making me sympathetic to keeping Columbus by suggesting that the bas-reliefs on the DuSable Bridge should go. Those are gorgeous and if they are a little History as Told By John Wayne, well, nobody said America is a tidy, fair place. The cowboys won, right?

But the report doesn’t suggest the offending panels simply be jackhammered away for “their allegorical representation of the triumph of Western civilization.” There are landmark considerations and maybe a “powerful, non-physical and possibly periodic, deactivation or disruption of these works” would suffice, which I imagine involves giving $10,000 to a School of the Art Institute student to devise a light show strobing blood red flashes across the bas-reliefs while looped shrieks startle passing tourists.

Why not? Times change and we change with them. We’ve been battering each other for so long over this literal deadweight from the past, I’m wondering if it isn’t time to try to get a little smarter about it.

A few talking points:

1. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing notwithstanding, monuments do matter — as illustrated by the neo-Confederates tossing up statues of Robert E. Lee in the 1950s as a thumb in the eye of civil rights. Removing those meant something, and while tradition and inertia are comforting, government is still responsible for what it celebrates. The fact remains we have a shrine to an Italian fascist, Italo Balbo, in the heart of our city. That certain folks fixate on the “Italian” part and wave away the “fascist” might be understandable — there’s a lot of that going around. But it doesn’t mean everybody has to join them, forever.

2. Context matters. When Maya Lin put up her slashing black wall of a Vietnam Memorial on the Mall in Washington in 1982, certain congressmen and public officials were so irked — Secretary of the Interior  James G. Watt  refused to issue a building permit — to see war disrespected, they had to be placated by more heroic fare, the “Three Servicemen Statue,” a work so bland few Americans know it’s there. There’s no reason that process couldn’t work the other way, with some black granite Ring of Shame being set up around Columbus to remind people of the 400 years of incomprehensible brutality his discovery set in motion.

3. Yay progress! But at some point, you ought to read the room. Half the country can’t bear to keep “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” in school libraries. If Chicago adds text to our three Lincoln statues sneering at our beloved rail-splitter because of some off-the-cuff remark he made at a debate in 1858, it’ll be the pretext for Florida to grinningly dump every notion of presenting a frank and honest assessment of America’s knotty, often awful, past. Not that they need one, but why make it easier?

Yes, the country is trying to wriggle out of its racist past like a snake shedding its old skin. But it’s also still our history and has to be handled with a modicum of sensitivity and respect. If that is possible.

Or as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote:

“The superstition in which we were brought up never loses its power over us, even after we understand it.”

Ain’t that the truth?

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