Not everyone knows this about me, but I am certified to teach art at the Jr. High/High school level in Texas. We studied a lot about art history and the symbolism behind art, especially public displays like monuments. The thing to remember is that there is no way to memorialize everything “historical” that needs to be memorialized. We would have statues every two feet to even begin that. Society has to pick and choose what to memorialize. Just putting up a statue in the first place is revisionist in several ways, because you choose to symbolize one thing over another. But because of this, statues are not just about history or art. They also have to symbolize who we are now and what we want to become in the future. That is how you move a memorial out of being a mere “historical artifact” (or worse “historical revisionism”) and into being an actual monument. That is also why, for instance, 9/11 monuments don’t show a building blowing up, but usually symbols to memorialize those that died while at the same time pointing to a better future that we want to see happen.
Also, we have to realize that there is a difference – from an artistic and symbolic perspective – between memorializing events and memorializing people. This is why we see memorials to the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. A memorial to the civil rights movement is not really appropriate for memorializing King, and a memorial to King is not really appropriate for memorializing the whole civil rights movement. Statues of people symbolize what that person did and who they were, not just the movement they led or were connected to – or the culture they were a part of.
This leads to the problem of Civil War statues of General Lee and other Confederate leaders being confused for memorials of the history and culture of the South. The United States Civil War was a specific type of war that was ideological in focus while being contained within our borders. Not all wars are like that, so we have to be careful when comparing it to other wars our country has been in, like the Korean War or World War II (or really any of the others). The ideas we divided over would shape the future of our country. Therefore, how we choose to memorialize and symbolize our Civil War is important. Do we symbolize the Civil War itself, or the leaders of the war? The difference is important.
This important difference means that the symbolism of the statues becomes ingrained with the history they represent – otherwise, they just simply aren’t “art.” If you look at the statues of General Lee (or other confederate leaders), they always have the pose of a leader. Sometimes taking a step forward, or on a horse – leading. This is to symbolize not only the historical record of where they led us in the past (dividing a nation to protect a state’s right to treat certain humans as less than human), but also to memorialize where the people were at during the time it was built and where they wanted to go in the future. Therefore, these statues symbolize not only art and history, but a future where people want to follow in General Lee’s footsteps again. That is why they created a statue of him as a leader (or actively leading on a horse), when he is no longer a leader. If the builders of the statues had wanted to symbolize a memorial to remind us not divide over hate again, they would not have made a statute that literally memorializes a leader leading his people into dividing over hate. No, a statue immortalizing General Lee as still leading is symbolic of a hope to go down that past road again.
Civil War monuments are also unique in that they are some of the only statues built by the losing side to memorialize their failed leaders. This has rarely happened in the history of war and conquest. Imagine the Romans (or any other large force) allowing the areas they conquered to build statues to their losing military leaders. No, usually the conquering force came in and tore down any statues of the people they conquered, and replaced them with statues of those people being conquered. To send a message. Because statues and memorials almost always send a message about the future at the same time they teach about the past.
Also, in the cases where conquered people’s statues weren’t destroyed, they were taken down and moved to a museum or trophy case of the winning side. We still see that in modern day America – symbols of the “losing” side are, at best, displayed in a museum. Most are filed away and forgotten in warehouses.
But let’s take the idea of Civil War statues into a modern context to really drive home this point. And no, not Korean War. For many reasons, the Korean War is a horrible comparison for the Civil War. No war in America can really be used as a good comparison. The closest parallel I can think of for this point (even though it is still problematic) is 9/11. Think of it this way: what if America had annexed Afghanistan as a new state (sorry Guam and Puerto Rico) and somehow the Taliban had settled down and became citizens. Then a large chunk of them moved to the U.S. and wanted to build statues to Osama Bin Laden and the people believed to have caused 9/11. And then we actually let them. And then a few decades later we wised up to how insensitive and inappropriate it was to build those statues in the first place. And then their descendants claimed we couldn’t take those statues down because it represented history and culture.
Would we buy into that? Doubtful. The people protesting the removal of Civil War statues would be the main ones crying out for the removal of these hypothetical statues. Let that sink in.