How many of you remember Piss Christ? In 1987, photographer Andres Serrano took a small plastic crucifix and submerged it in a glass of his own urine. He then took a photo and included it in a touring exhibit where, in 1989—after two years on display—it suddenly caused a national uproar.
Conservatives called the work offensive and demanded it be taken down. Progressives called it provocative and defended it. (Time magazine, for its part, eventually called it one of the 100 most influential photos of all time.) As an added layer of political contention, Serrano’s tour was funded, in part, by a $5,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts—in other words, public money.
Thirty years later, we seem to be experiencing a similar controversy over art. In this case, the outrage centers around statues of Confederate leaders. The difference this time is that the Left is crying “offensive” and the Right is defending them. From strictly an artistic perspective, at least, methinks I smell the whiff of hypocrisy coming from both ends of the political spectrum. Funny what a few decades will do.
However you feel about the Confederate monuments—symbols of white supremacy or forms of Southern hagiography—there can be no debate on this point: many of the statues are exceptional works of sculpture with intrinsic value as works of art. Some of the foremost sculptors of their times created some of these statues: Moses Ezekiel, Frederick William Sievers, Edward Valentine, Antonin Mercié, and others.
As several of my colleagues have already pointed out (here and here), the statues were mostly raised in a spirit of commemoration and celebration with the intent of honoring dead Confederate heroes. While a minority of the public did find the monuments offensive at the time—I think specifically of Union veterans (see Brian Matthew Jordan’s post) and African-Americans—the majority of the public, especially across the south where most of these monuments rose up, found no objection to them all.
Only over time have the meanings of these works shifted, and only as the nonsense of the Lost Cause has finally begun to wear away and we’ve come to a fuller understanding of the Confederacy’s explicit motivation to preserve slavery, have those statues become less and less tasteful to more and more people.
But merely being “offensive” is a problematic criterion because it’s so subjective, and what one person calls “offensive,” another may equally call “provocative.” And, after all, one of the primary purposes of art is to provoke: provoke thought, provoke reflection, provoke discussion, provoke outrage.
To push the argument even further, I would argue that a work of art that finds new meaning and new audiences over time meets one of the criteria for “great” art. That’s why we keep lining up to look at the Mona Lisa, why we keep reading Shakespeare, and why we keep grooving to Louis Armstrong (as an aside, listen here starting at 44:52 if you want to be reminded about Armstrong’s continual search for joy!).
In the case of these Confederate statues, if they are provoking a national conversation about race, I can think of no better provocation. There is no conversation more important for this country to have right now than an open, honest, ongoing conversation about race. I worry that if the statues come down, our notoriously short collective consciousness will forget that, Oh, wait, we really should be trying to better understand the complicated dynamics of race so that we can all maybe start getting along a little better.
The key to all this, I think, is context. After all, people saw Piss Christ in art galleries, not in churches or public squares, which helped them properly contextualize their experience. We see Shakespeare in a theater or a park or some other performance space. We need to place Confederate statuary in some similar kind of context that will help people better understand what they’re looking at.
The equestrian statue of Lee and Jackson removed from Baltimore this week makes a perfect example. The statue has artistic merit not only for its sheer magnificent size but because it was reportedly the first dual-equestrian statue ever cast as a single piece—no small feat. But why on earth was there a statue of Lee and Jackson in a city neither of them ever visited during the war?
To have the statue in Wyman Park in front of the art museum was about the best possible location for it if it the city had to pick one, but without signage that did more to place the sculpture within the context of the rest of the museum’s holdings, the sculpture felt disconnected. Truth be told, the best location for that statue would at the Lee-Jackson Bivouac Site on the Chancellorsville battlefield—the location of the generals’ last meeting, which the sculpture depicts. No more immersive context for that sculpture could be possible.
On the other hand, Lee and Jackson statues on Monument Avenue in Richmond do sit in a specific context, which the city itself redefined in 1996 when it erected a statue of tennis player Arthur Ashe to accompany Lee, Jackson, Jeb Stuart, Jefferson Davis, and Matthew Fontaine Maury—a Confederate naval planner who was also one of the most seminal scientists of the 19th century. (Confederate connection aside, his role as the “father of modern oceanography” alone merits a statue.) Monument Avenue has a long history as a tourist attraction, everyone depicted there in statuary has some connection to the city, and the city has room to add more monuments if it so desired—and, importantly, room to add contextual signage for all the monuments.
A case-by-case approach to these works of art reminds me of the Federal Communications Commission’s approach to “indecency,” which it explicitly ties into “offensiveness.” The FCC looks at material “in context” and applies “contemporary community standards” to define what is or isn’t indecent or offensive. “Contemporary” is key. That’s why a statue of Saddam Hussein stood in a public space one day and came crashing down the next. Times and circumstances and changed—and keep changing. So do audiences.
Only in this way—on a case-by-case basis, when viewed in context—can I feel at all comfortable supporting any removal of Confederate statues. Otherwise, carte-blanche removal strikes me as a form of censorship. As a former journalist, a journalism professor, and a writer, I have looked at that line in the sand long and hard for decades and it is quite clear: the First Amendment protects the freedom of speech and expression—not just the expressions we like or agree with.
The First Amendment does not protect hate speech, but it would be hard to apply that label to these statues because the works themselves are not inherently hateful or offensive. In fact, in their day, they reflected the idealized vision of a large portion of the societies that paid for, erected, and dedicated them. If some audiences today now see the statues as symbols of white supremacy, that’s a meaning the audiences themselves come to just as other audiences see them as symbols of Southern heroism. You might be surprised to know that Andres Serrano didn’t intend Piss Christ to be overtly offensive, either, and he was quite taken aback by the controversy over his work. “I was born and raised a Catholic and have been a Christian all my life,” he told The Washington Post. “My work is not meant to be blasphemous nor offensive.”
If the Confederate statues offend, it is up to those who are offended to rise to the challenge—with information, education, and conversation. After all, even as it provokes us, art invites us to engage it. To censor it is to silence the engagement.