Alexander McCall Smith: Stalinist iconoclasm that sees statues torn down is a form of dishonesty about the past

Are statues worth the trouble? Last week Queen Victoria was toppled in Canada, while Princess Diana was unveiled afresh.

Off with his head? A statue of Joseph Stalin is lifted by a crane in Berlin, on its way to an exhibition about the former Soviet dictator called 'Stalin, The Red God' (Picture: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images)
Off with his head? A statue of Joseph Stalin is lifted by a crane in Berlin, on its way to an exhibition about the former Soviet dictator called 'Stalin, The Red God' (Picture: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images)

Statues divide people, pleasing some, antagonising others. Very few seem to be uncontroversial. Every victory, celebrated in a statue, is somebody’s humiliation. Every hero is somebody’s villain, or, at the least, has feet of clay. And the defence of artistic merit is of no avail: presumably there are those who would find grounds to object even to the Venus de Milo, whose lack of arms might be seen as a symbolic of objectification and disempowerment.

Statues are about the past, and how we relate to it. This question is particularly pressing in western liberal democracies, where self-examination is permitted; it is rather different in those places where it is unfashionable, not to say downright dangerous, to question the official historical narrative.

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The problem is, of course, that nobody’s past is perfect, and that throughout human history people have persistently maltreated, abused and exploited one another. That does not diminish the significance of any particular example of that sort of conduct, but it should, perhaps, put it in context and remind us that wickedness and cruelty are universal, frequently incorrigible, and seemingly inevitable concomitants of any human endeavour. We are red in tooth and claw, and our statues remind us of that.

Looking at the past with a clear eye inevitably brings pain. Yet we have to do it, because the shadow of the past still affects the lives of those living today. Historical disadvantage does not disappear overnight, and it may also be salutary for those on the top to be reminded that they are there because of their predecessors’ expertise in exploiting and oppressing those on the bottom.

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Such a vision may affect the way we look at look at a culture and its achievements. It is harder now to be proud of the past than it was before this critical way of looking at things asserted itself. As Auden says in his poem on the death of Sigmund Freud, the proud can still be proud, but find it a little harder now.

In the middle of this battleground stand the statues, which have become an intensely divisive issue. There are those who think statues commemorating unpalatable aspects of the past should be toppled – and are prepared to do the toppling themselves.

The toppled statue of 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston lies on display in M Shed museum in Bristol, England, after being thrown into the city's harbour by a crowd of protesters (Picture: Polly Thomas/Getty Images)

This iconoclastic impulse is nothing new – it was, after all, a feature of the Reformation, when churches and other public places were stripped of religious art. It reappeared under communism and had a heyday after the defeat of fascism in Europe when symbols and statues were detonated by liberating troops and locals alike.

Stalin, Rhodes, and confederate generals have all come down. It occurred in newly independent colonies where people, quite understandably, wanted place names and public spaces to reflect them rather than colonial masters. It rumbles on in Spain in the issue of commemoration of the civil war. Even statues of the Buddha have been caught up in it. There is no shortage of examples.

Yet this iconoclasm, even when it is prompted by a real sense of outrage over past wrong, could have serious consequences for how we understand history and how we perpetuate this understanding. The proponents of statue removal will probably not be satisfied until all monuments unacceptable to current sensibilities are removed or, at least, re-interpreted – an approach regarded by some as a compromise, a half-way house. In this way what was a tribute becomes a more balanced assessment.

In one view, removing a statue is no more than a necessary correction – a reminder of the dark side of the past. Some statues are clearly offensive to contemporary sensibilities. Yet the danger in such programmes of historical reassessment is an absence of nuance and the temptation to obliterate the painful past rather than remember it in all its complexity.

In the Soviet Union, those out of favour were simply rubbed out of the record. I recall standing in a Moscow gallery before a painting of Soviet leaders in which conveniently-placed vases of flowers were all that remained of those who had been removed during Stalin’s terror. Touching up photographs and paintings to remove the disappeared, was, apparently, a highly-developed skill during Stalin’s reign. Do we want to be such a society, with that sort of dishonesty at the heart of the public record?

And what about the future erection of statues? In an age of iconoclasm, who would be a creator of icons? Any public body thinking of commissioning a statue might care to consider the possibility that today’s hero might be tomorrow’s disgrace. Intellectual fashions change. Political fortunes ebb.

In divided societies, which is what we undoubtedly are, virtually any statue is going to offend somebody, and so perhaps the issue is whether we should have any more statues at all. In this way, the public space is rendered neutral – beyond the ownership of any one cultural or historical view; rendered neutral, yes, perhaps, but also sterile.

Some may welcome that from an aesthetic rather than an ideological point of view. Statues are odd things, really – those that are simple representations of the person are rather trite and some of them seem to encourage a vainglorious tendency – almost an attempt at immortality. They remind us of a particular figure, but do little more than that.

Others make a point, and make it profoundly. Outside the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg there is a statue of Gandhi. I visited that museum on a day when the first bite of winter was in the air. Suddenly the slight figure was there, striding alongside the path to the entrance. The effect is powerful.

Gandhi is not clothed for a Canadian late October day. His simple garb, his beneficent smile, his dignity – all these make the statue a powerful reminder of his message. There is a statue of Oscar Wilde in the West End of London that has a similar effect – in that case, it is a tribute to the art of conversation.

But the most memorable statue I have seen was in George Town, on Grand Cayman. This is of a politician. I was told (and I hope it is true) that his supporters were keen on erecting a statue to him after his death, but discovered, to their dismay, how much a made-to-measure statue costs. So they found a firm in the United States that sold ready-made statues – much more cheaply. It did not seem to matter than the statue they bought bore no resemblance to their hero: all that had to be done was make a label.

Perhaps that points to a solution. Future statues might be generic, and preferably androgynous. They could have replaceable heads. If the person commemorated should fall out of fashion, then all that would be required would be for the head to be screwed off and replaced by another. The changing of the inscription at the base would be a small task.

Another possible solution is the erection of abstract statues. These would be capable of representing anything, and again the only issue would be the readily-changeable label. There is always a way round any problem: all that is required is a bit of imagination.

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