News & Politics

Art Historians Say NYC’s Offensive Statues Should Be Annotated, Not Removed

Adding plaques to Columbus and other statues could help frame their “afterlife”

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Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered a review of New York City’s controversial statues, declaring in a post-Charlottesville fervor that all “symbols of hate” would need to be scrutinized by a committee if they want to maintain their place in public spaces.

De Blasio may have tossed off the announcement in hopes of accruing quick plaudits from voters happy to see New York living up to its progressive reputation. But the matter of decreeing who stays and who goes has not been nearly as easy as de Blasio might have hoped. Now a new debate has been spurred: What exactly is the best way to handle monuments to personages with a history of racism, sexism, or oppression — most notably, the massive pillar topped by Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle — that are nevertheless woven tightly into the city’s fabric?

Backtracking from his initial impassioned tweets that monuments could start coming down soon, the mayor was quick to come up with the alternate proposal of affixing explanatory plaques to some problematic statues.

“I think there’s been a misunderstanding of what options could be utilized,” the mayor told reporters. “There’s more than one way to address this. I don’t think anyone should leap to any conclusions. They should see how this commission does its work and what it presents.”

Many local art historians say it’s not the worst idea, arguing that contextualizing the sculptures is a far better solution than removal. Michele Bogart, an art history professor at Stony Brook University and author of Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City, 1890–1930, tells the Voice that adding accompanying signage could offer crucial historical explanations for how the statues got there in the first place, and perhaps “enable people to challenge certain histories without having to deny them.”

Bogart argues that nearly every statue has an interesting origin story, and that it’s important to remember that the works are not “inert objects.”

“I see them as part of a process that ends in this sculpture but that has an afterlife as well, as we’re seeing now,” she says.

The 76-foot-tall marble monument supporting a likeness of Columbus, for example, was erected in 1892 with funds raised by a New York–based Italian newspaper in commemoration of the four hundreth anniversary of Columbus conquering the Americas. But Bogart says the statue’s meaning has evolved with time. Whereas before Columbus was largely ignored by passersby, people have started to think about why the statue is there and how it figures into American life today. Rather than take it down, why not use the opportunity to engage in a conversation?

“My belief is you need to learn to deal with these contradictions and complexities in modern life,” says Bogart. “There’s something to offend everybody. And so we can remove everything, which is really what it kind of boils down to. ”

Harriet Senie, the director of art museum studies at the City College of New York, agrees with Bogart that context is key.

“We don’t want to get caught up in a presentist state of mind where we think that everything we believe now is the gospel,” she said.

De Blasio has yet to announce the members of his commission, though a spokesperson said that more information will be available in “the very near future.” Once appointed, the committee will be taking nominations about which works to review.

Last week, Columbia University history professor and candidate for New York City Public Advocate candidate David Eisenbach unveiled his proposal to divide Columbus Circle into a trio of educational “plazas,” featuring panels detailing, according to DNAinfo, “Columbus’s bloody conquests, his exploits with slavery, and the symbol he has since become for Italian Americans.”

“The idea is involving these three sections of the circle, what you can actually do is tell the story of Columbus’s legacy, the good, the bad, and the ugly,” he told the outlet.

But what about those who would rather not walk by a symbol of oppression each day at all? After all, some monuments, like the two plaques honoring Robert E. Lee in Brooklyn, were disappeared without debate. Senie says to her, the physical location of the statues matters.

“I would certainly say the site frames the content,” she said. “If it’s at City Hall, that’s a different place than if it’s in Columbus Circle.”

Like Bogart, Senie also wonders where it’s appropriate to draw the line. “When you say, ‘Should it stay or should it go?’ — that’s a very divisive kind of a question,” she says. “I think what we do with these sculptures is very, very important, and I think that they can be used in a constructive way.”

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