A Monumental Discussion: Chris Mackowski


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.

30 Responses to A Monumental Discussion: Chris Mackowski

  1. Chris:
    Interesting post. While I’m in favor of confining statues honoring Confederates to battlefields, museums and Confederate cemeteries, I concede that the recent debate over Rebel monuments has been healthy. And it might even encourage Americans to learn more about the CW.

  2. I sgree with Rob.There are many Americans who know very little about our history including its founding ,the controversy y of remaining an English colony or fighting for our freedom few know that not all supported or fought for the Revolution.They know less about the Civil War.Education in public schools has been so watered down because the emphasis has been on STEM for the last 20 years

  3. Chris: As I’ve commented in a couple of other threads, I think that a case-by-case examination is appropriate. The trick, I think, is the standard to be applied. In a general way I think that the two most relevant criteria are location and history of the monument (when and why erected). You make the following good point: “If the Confederate statues offend, it is up to those who are offended to rise to the challenge—with information, education, and conversation.” The problem, unfortunately, is that too many couldn’t care less about information and education.

    1. Alas, John, I think you’re right when you say, “too many couldn’t care less about information and education.” I am reminded of those in this debate who love to play the “Founding Father” card as they yell–the Founders universally believed in the importance of education, not only for personal betterment but as a necessary component for successful democracy. If they REALLY honored the Founders, they’d stop yelling and start listening and reading and discussing.

      1. Example: we have people “deleting” this site because somebody dares state a viewpoint at odds with their own.

      2. John: We have had a few deletions, but we’ve also picked up a net gain of subscribers, too. Few people have to worry too much, though: we’ll be back to our usual “mud and blood” next week! 😉

      3. The “Founding Father card as they yell…”? These monuments are under assault due to slavery not segregation. At least that’s my impression. And if that is, in fact, true, it seems to me a fair question: why aren’t statues of the Founding Fathers in jeopardy? Im not yelling, merely seeking an answer.

      4. “The founding father card…as they yell…”. Chris, I think that was a bit of a cheap shot. It is my view that the current protests have little to do with the Confederacy per se. Or at least they’re not limited to the Confederacy. I say this because I do not believe it is about secession but, rather, about slavery. If this is true, the question about the statues commemorating the Founding Fathers seems to be a logical and fair one. I am not yelling as I state this merely asking a question and interested in your view.

        I have asked a similar question before in response to Matt Stanley’s post where I brought up statues of Grant, Sherman and Sheridan (due to their involvement in the genocide of Native Americans) but, to date, have not received a response.

      5. Mike: I should’ve been clearer in my initial reference to the Founders. I hear a lot of people on the right, particularly, crying that “the Founders would have never liked such-and-such.” To invoke the Founders that way implies (incorrectly) that they were a unified, monolithic groupthink; they were not. They had wildly diverse opinions about how strong the Federal government should be.

        As to your other point, yes, I do think this whole controversy circles back to slavery, although the monuments themselves are more symbolic of the age of segregation because of when and why they were put up.

        I think we tend to forget that anyone who gets memorialized with a statue was, first and foremost, a complex human with good and bad traits. We could probably make a case for taking down statues of nearly anyone. That’s just way too slippery slope for me.

  4. Interesting argument. One contrary point that I think needs to be made: If someone was offended by “Piss Christ,” they simply could avoid going to any exhibition of it. Of course, there were news stories and advertising that might impose the existence of the piece on someone, but the point remains—going to see the offensive photo was a voluntary act. Many of the Confederate monuments are in public spaces (like city parks), so refusing to be exposed to them essentially denies one the use of those parks. And many of the statues are nearby to facilities like the local courthouse, and, of course, we have the many schools named for Confederate heroes.

    1. That is true, James, and I’ll concede that point. But I would also suggest that one can decide or not how much time one wants to devote to paying attention to those pieces, even if they choose to use the parks. We all know how easy it can be to let things fade into the background–even things that annoy and rankle us. That said, I’m very much in favor of contextualizing those public spaces in a way that invites people to spend time reconsidering the very nature of those spaces and those works of art. And because they are public spaces, there’s nothing that prevents a public entity from adding new art to challenge the old. Of course, this gets into the age-old question of how valuable art is/isn’t and whether it deserves public support. Traditionally, the answer has been “not much.” But if people are truly offended and indignant, here’s a chance to reallocate priorities and resources to address those concerns. After all, once upon a time, people had to come up with money to pay for these monuments in the first place. The same financial challenge applies now.

      1. City parks really don’t bother me, one way or the other. As I wrote on Wednesday, I am more concerned with the appearance or neo-Nazis and allied groups. The “I’m offended” line of argument has never appealed to me, if only because I have spent much of my life being offended by one thing or another 😉 and I’ve learned to get past it.

        But that is easy for me. It is less so for a black family who has felt the sting of civil oppression. I don’t think they should have to send their kids to a school named for Nathan Bedford Forrest or Robert E. Lee. Or look up at a statue of Jefferson Davis as they drive through their home town. Sorry if that bothers folks, but that is just the way I feel.

        We need dialogue on this issue, but that is difficult when white supremacists and neo-Nazis are in the equation. I’m not offended at all by a statue of Robert E. Lee; I am very offended by people screaming anti-Semitic blather while defending one. If removing the statue gets rid of the Nazis, I’m all for it. My problem is not with the statue, it is with the people (well, some of them) defending it. IMO, the burden is on the defenders to keep the Nazis out of the picture.

      2. First, James, I want to say that you have added a whole lot of good stuff for people to think about to this discussion, here and on Facebook. Thank you for all of that.

        Second. I think it’s unfortunate that the burden now rests on the defenders to keep white supremacists out of the picture. I agree with you that that’s probably now the state of affairs. Unfortunately, I know a lot of moderate voices in the Southern heritage movement who really do look at this through the lens of their ancestors, not through the lens of the Confederate government. That the statues and flag have been misappropriated by radicals is not their fault even if it is, alas, the reality.

      3. Chris: You’re probably correct about the burden but the moderates deserve a good amount of blame for that, I think. For far too lomg they’ve silently allowed the white supremacist/neo-Nazi mob to use these symbols for their own abhorrent/treasonous purposes without either articulating an acceptable position or acknowledging the mixed character of many of these monuments.. Now they’re reaping the whirlwind. I did find the extended statement by Jackson’s descendants to be a model of reason.

    1. Thanks. Remember, my perspective is that primarily of a journalism person and writer, not a historian, so I place a different level of value on freedom of speech and expression than other people might. I do hope people keep those vital freedoms in mind, though.

  5. Bravo Chris. This is such a reasoned and deeply thoughtful essay. However, it does sadden me that our nation may well have crossed the Rubicon when it comes to an open ear to reasonable discussion.

  6. Thanks Chris. Well thought out and expressed. What are your thoughts on the “slippery slope” problem, i.e. the countless monuments and memorials to slaveholders who founded a “slave-holding republic” or Union officers who were involved in the Indian Wars? As you well know, the offensive memorials don’t stop there. There are now calls to remove monuments to Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and even Bill Clinton. I’ve read of at least 2 Lincoln statues that have been vandalized. Heck the very name “America” (North, South, United States of . . .) is derived from the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci who was, at least to some extent, involved in the slave trade. Thoughts?

  7. Chris, please don’t take offense at my remarks as none are intended. It seems you may have antipathy towards those on the right. In one of your prior comments you lamented, “if (the right)…would stop yelling and start listening and reading and discussing…” as if their opinions are, by definition, rooted in ignorance. I am 62 and have been reading and listening and learning most of my life. Perhaps we just assess information and facts and draw different conclusions.

    Jumping to another topic, albiet related, I myself have never been under the misunderstanding that the Founders were a monolithic group. Nor, paranthetically, were southern military leaders. Some of whom were against secession, annd some even slavery. To the extent there is that belief I have to think it’s a marginal group. I cannot believe it is pervasive. Hopefully I havent lost you with my transition in topics.

    Finally, the main point I have been attempting to make in my comments, is that the focus of Confederate statues misses the larger point that statues commemorating all American icons are in jeopardy. Since we agree that the underlying issue driving these protests is not secession but slavery (and I take your point that the statues were erected during the Jim Cow era. And what that signifies) we can expect to see future protests (assaults?) against other leaders from other eras.

    In the last couple days alone we have seen protests sgainst a statue of William McKinley and, here in my area of California, a statue of Father Junipero Serra was desecrated. My cousin wrote a book about Serra and his controversial relationships with Native Americans.

    Thank you for listening.

  8. i remember the incident,but over the last 30 years there have been many more incidents and provocations by the left in and effort to destroy cultural norms,distort or eliminate historical events they disagree with and,largely through the courts and the permanent bureaucracy in washington eliminate the framers vision of god given inalienable rights.you have billionaires funding these movements.does the name george soros ring a bell?thanks

  9. Chris, I just joined the discussion recently, so I did not have the pleasure of reading the postings from earlier in the year. On matters of historically based art, I would like to believe that I am neither left or right, if left is seen as engaged in a war against presently disliked icons, and right as blindly supportive of the icons’ cause. Rather, I dislike the guillotining of historical monuments, as if their removal acts as a closure to all mature reflection and discussion. Personally, I would prefer the more expensive option of erecting additional statuary in proximity to the existing ones. In Gloucester Virginia a plaque honoring a local member of the U.S.C.T. who received the Congressional Medal of honor is immediately adjacent to the more traditional one of the Old Soldier. I would like to believe that we have the power to recognize that the Lost Cause is gone, whereas the horrific familial losses sustained are worthy of tragic remembrance. And that the cause of true human liberty will never fade. Europe is filled with majestic statues to individuals who we would probably view as somewhat appalling, such as Louis XIV, Napoleon and Phillip II. Do we make ourselves a better people by childishly demolishing the works of the past?

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