Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Felling statues raises deeper questions

  • 25 June 2020
The debate that has followed (and fuelled) the destruction of statues is pretty thin. It lacks awareness of the broad cultural strands interwoven in the issue. After a preliminary remark, I shall outline three large questions raised by statues and their destruction, and reflect on the larger history that illuminates the present debate.

The most evident aspect of burning, decapitating or drowning statues is that it is an expression of enthusiasm, and is enormously enjoyable for those who take part in it. It is a symbol of radical change, and channels anger at a resented past into joy at the inauguration of a new age. Images of the Russian Revolution and of the collapse of the Soviet Empire alike are full of defaced paintings and the dethroning of statues of rulers. Unfortunately, common to all such events, is the subsequent realisation that with the coming of a new world, life does not automatically change for the better.

The larger questions posed by the destruction of the statues, and indeed of reputations, that they symbolise, concern how to handle complexity. First, historical complexity. Statues destroyed are almost always of a past age when commonly shared attitudes to society and to human aspirations differed from those of our own. Those past attitudes and the economic and political structures in which they were embodied, however, have helped shape our own world, and so are inherited both by those who call for something radically new and by those opposed to change.

Of their nature statues of the past confront us with complexity and ambiguity. Knocking their heads off does not make a society more simple, though it may lead to desired change by forcing us to ask whether the attitudes and actions of our ancestors were morally defensible as well as understandable. Asking that question of the past is awkward because it pushes us inescapably to ask it also of our own actions, attitudes and inheritance.  

Second, the question of human complexity. Statues represent, even in their idealised shape, real people marked by a mixture of good and bad desires, of good and evil actions, of light and darkness, strength and weakness, and of ignorance and knowledge. In public life they will inevitably have endorsed or acquiesced in actions that harmed groups in society. Details of their private lives and relationships, once concealed, may also now be known. This fuller knowledge forces us to ask whether we