I am having a hard time thinking about anything other than last weekend's Charlottesville rally against tearing down the Robert E. Lee statue. It is a perfect example of why understanding art through data (in this case, public monuments) can be powerful and important.
Of the 5,193 public statues of historical figures in the United States, over 700 (13.5%) are of Confederate soldiers. There were an estimated 750k - 1M soldiers in the Confederate Army, which means we have nearly one public statue for every thousand Confederate soldiers, soldiers whose legacy is that they were fighting to preserve slavery and lost that war.
Let’s look another group of people who you may have heard of: women. Women make up ~50% of humans. Estimates put the population for all people who ever lived on earth at 108B. So that means we have about 54B+ woman to potentially honor with public statues. Fifty-three billion women is a heck of a lot more than 1M Confederate soldiers, and most of these women were not in a losing war to preserve slavery. So, then, there must be lots of public statues celebrating women, right? Not so much.
In fact, just 394 of our public statues are of women (7.6%). We have roughly half the number of public statues for women than we have for Confederate soldiers. I don't have the numbers for other under-represented groups, but I fear they are even worse.
Unlike sculpture in museums or in private collections, we are all forced to share space with these public statues. They live in our parks, town and city squares, campuses and historic sites. It seems reasonable to expect them to reflect the values, heritage, and aspirations of those forced to live with them.
What to do about it?
Like many, my first reaction is to remove all of the public Confederate monuments. I love art history, and I have heard the voices saying this is part of our history, even if it is a shameful part. However, as Boston historian Kevin Levin points out:
Many of the Confederate monuments throughout the south and sprinkled across the north were erected in the 20th Century in the early days of the Jim Crow era, when Ku Klux Klan membership grew.
They were primarily promoting racial intimidation and white supremacist ideologies more than memorializing Civil War figures — in essence how white southerners wanted to remember their war, Levin said.
So it turns out that many of these statues have not been around very long and were built with the sole intent of intimidation. I humbly propose two ideas for how we should handle the 700 public statues of Confederate soldiers.
My first thought is that we melt them down and recast them as statues of more worthy historical figures from under-represented populations. My second thought is that we keep the public confederate statues right where they are, and place statues of those they oppressed at twice the scale looming over them, looking down at them in judgment for their backwards ideals and to commemorate their epic failure. If the argument is “we must retain statues of Confederate soldiers to preserve and remember the uglier parts of our country’s past,” then let us at least do a good job of it.