by Karen L. Mulder, PhD
Something held “in the balance” suggests an outcome in some jeopardy, with a precarious tipping point, poised to fall. Americans have lived in a 49% to 51% society for decades, often negotiating out of a wearying polarity between reactive rhetoric and responsive dialogue. The great statue controversy of our time throws the tensions between poles in high relief. It also backhandedly underscores the enduring efficacy and potency of public art.
Many a statue bit the dust before Jefferson Davis or Johnny Reb—George III, Bismarck, Stalin, Mao, and Saddam Hussein all experienced the downside of a tipping point. The violence in Charlottesville sparked by Lee and Jackson statues spurred Richmond to reconsider its grand esplanade of statues, mostly erected between 1890 and the 1920s by proud white, Confederate-loving Virginians. A state of emergency initiated by COVID tipped the process into the city-sanctioned removal of statues. As men in Day-Glo vests unceremoniously carted the allegorical Vindicatrix away from her high pedestal, Miss Confederacy defiantly kept pointing—except now, she was leading the way towards deep storage rather than heaven.
Before Richmond’s statues came down, protesters converted massive stone plinths into spray-painted palimpsests of the vox populi. Plazas became the essence of “successful” contemporary public spaces, enacted upon by ballet dancers, lawn chairs pods, flash mobs, soap box speakers, and taggers. One artist’s nightly projections emblazoned “BLM” on Lee’s horse above portraits of courageous, outstanding Americans like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Ida Wells, and John Lewis.
While it is true that no American alive today ever lived in the actual Confederacy, it is tragically true that too many people still experience its legacy of oppression and ineffectual rights enforcement. This is a living history. Removing statues will not completely ease this wound or vanquish this infection.
The only statue surviving at the outer limits of Monument Avenue celebrates the only Black male Wimbledon champion, Arthur Ashe, who waves a wooden racket instead of a sabre. Ashe trained on brick walls, barred from Richmond’s segregated tennis courts. Volunteers recently scrubbed “White Lives Matter” graffiti off the statue’s base. Nearby, only a few months before COVID changed the way we negotiate public space, the Museum of Fine Arts on Ashe Boulevard installed Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War, a contemporary equestrian sculpture that now, ironically, requires guards. The young African American man who sits in the saddle, in high tops, dreadlocks and hoodie, emulates the dramatically torqued posture of J.E.B. Stuart leading a charge on Monument Avenue. Stuart’s bronze waits under wraps, in the balance, at a wastewater management facility, with Vindicatrix and nine other statues.
Exodus explains how Moses’ brother Aaron capitulated to the people’s demands for a Golden Calf. Stunned that he did not have a 100% consensus on Jehovah’s behalf, Moses incinerated the idol, ground its ashes into powder, and made the people drink it. Christ on earth, who promised Living Water, operated in a pronounced minority, yet consistently communicated through response rather than reactivity—even while being crucified. How large must the space in the balance between Old Testament rectitude and New Testament love be to invite dialogue rather than rhetoric? Richmond’s learning all about it. What’s in your water these days?
Karen L. Mulder, a former CIVA board member, is an architectural historian based in Charlottesville, Virginia.