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  • Reading Between the Lines of History
  • Erin Thompson (bio)

Confederate, race, labor, art, art crime, George Floyd, statue, monument, soldier, historian

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If the summer of 2020 had a visual refrain, it was of statues coming down, the likes of Jefferson Davis and Christopher Columbus being sawed and pulled from plinths, dragged into rivers. For anyone old enough, the memes recalled watching the Berlin Wall crumble in real time, or the footage of Saddam Hussein's statue being toppled by a tank during the fall of Baghdad in 2003.

Amid the public outrage over the murder of George Floyd, and what his death reminded us about racial injustice in America, the most popular targets of demonstrations were also the most familiar: Confederate generals like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, men who articulated the degree to which the South's Lost Cause mythology had been woven into the backdrop of American culture, totems of just how deeply racism had been institutionalized. For many, tearing them down, or simply watching them be torn down, was both cathartic and symbolic: The violent tradition of racial oppression—against Native Americans and Black Americans in particular—might finally be rooted out.

Erin Thompson dove into this phenomenon somewhat infamously on social media, with a tweet about using chains instead of rope if you wanted to pull a statue down faster. It was tongue-in-cheek, sort of—and was, in any case, just a follow-up to an archaeologist's tweet of a napkin schematic detailing ancient methods of moving obelisks. But if anyone would know the most effective ways to take down public art, Thompson would. As a professor of art crime, she has spent years studying the ways in which cultural heritage is replaced, erased, and destroyed—institutionally or otherwise. Though she never expected her expertise to be this timely, the attack on white, patrilineal statuary was right in her wheelhouse: "I had studied how the Islamic State, for instance, enforced their vision of a hate-filled future by destroying ancient statues. Preserving monuments that praise a hate-filled past, ignoring the wishes of communities, is just as despotic."

Thompson noticed something peculiar about the trend: The most common Confederate statues weren't the most vilified. Figures such as Lee and Jackson and J. E. B. Stuart drew a lot of attention. But the most common Confederate statue out there has been an anonymous soldier, [End Page 24] standing at what's known as parade rest: a posture of attention, a pose of discipline. "It's not celebrating heroism," Thompson says. "It's not celebrating skill. It's celebrating the low-ranking soldier's ability to stand there without moving or speaking and listen to his betters."

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Curious about this Confederate everyman, Thompson dove into archives—as best she could, given the restrictions of the pandemic—and dug around for speeches and articles, paying particular attention to events surrounding a particular statue's dedication. She landed on a remarkable hypothesis—that these anonymous Confederate statues were erected to suppress the rights of white workers.

This and other ways of looking at controversial statuary are in Thompson's forthcoming book, Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of American Monuments, which explores the motivations of the politicians, patrons, and artists who helped establish these monuments in the first place, as well as contemporary debates over what to do with them. Along the way, she's been able to dissect the narrative around controversial monuments into curious parts. And she leans into questions about what might come next as the public debates best practices for future commemorations. She also looks at how the hierarchy embedded in old monuments and statues has been incorporated into radical artistic responses—such as the Houston Museum of African American Culture's exhibition of a Confederate statue removed from a local park.

One of the tropes of this debate she attempts to cut through is the value of historical relativism. "People...


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pp. 22-27
Launched on MUSE
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