Statue Wars 2020

The statues are falling so fast. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement statues to racists, slavers and corrupt cops have been removed around the world. It reminds me of the end of the Soviet Union. Statues are being painted, vandalised, removed or pulled down around the world. In the USA it is Christopher Columbus and Confederate generals, in Belgium Leopold II, in England Edward Colston… the list goes on.

Sir John Tweed, Captain Cook, 1914

However, in Australia, no statue has been removed. Not that there aren’t plenty of memorials to racist colonials around. In October 1991 Gary Foley and Robbie Thorpe put the statue of John Batman in Melbourne on trial (developers have since removed that statue so the area could be redeveloped). In 2017 I wrote about the Statue Wars, in 2019 I wrote about the campaign to remove the statue of William Wentworth from Sydney University. Still, I never expected that there would be so much interest in public sculpture.

Public art has always been part of a culture war. So it is not surprising that public art continues to be a cultural battlefield. Before the twentieth century, the purpose of public art was to support the authorities. Defacement was an official practice in the Roman Empire before it came into common, popular use, faces were officially removed from monuments when they fell out of Imperial favour.

I’m reminded of the destruction of the Vendôme column, a monument to Napoleon, that was pulled down in 1871 during the Paris Commune. And that the French Realist artist, Gustave Courbet maintained, in his defence, that he had only called for it to be dismantled and displayed for educational value.

The statue wars have been going on in Australia for a long time, a symbolic battlefield for displaying Australia’s cultural divides. And conservatives are not above vandalising and removing statues and other public sculptures. In the 1980s, people saw the internationalism abstract public art as a cultural battlefield. Consider the year-long controversy over Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault which was known at the time by the racist phrase: “the Yellow Peril”. And there are also Australia’s most vandalised sculptures: Yagan and Liz and Phil by the Lake

Now the cultural battle has switched to the removal of figurative public art representing and glorifying colonialism and other racism. A change in attitude towards public monuments is sweeping the world. A change of symbols of the collective consciousness is an indication of a shift in consciousness. The fall of statues is both a symbolic and real change in the way that public space is seen.

It raises many questions for me. Why should the public space be some triumphal version of colonial history excused with the dubious claim that it is educational? Why do past generations get to dictate what the future will look like by erecting statues? And when will Australia start to change? Is conservative Australia is too powerful, and too deeply in denial, to allow even a symbolic gesture?

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

41 responses to “Statue Wars 2020

  • Andrew King

    You ask, ‘Why do past generations get to dictate what the future will look like by erecting statues?’

    Well, Mark, what’s the answer?

  • andrewkingaa

    Clearly, a statue can only be erected by the then-current generation, presumably in response to prevailing community values.

    In Australia, the erection of many public statues has been, and are, funded by the citizenry through municipal rates or by public subscription. Pity the local authority that proposes a statue subject that/who is unpopular (your example of ‘Vault’ is apposite).

    Are you suggesting that this generation should not erect statues?

    Or perhaps you believe that this generation is sufficiently ‘enlightened’ that its choice of statue subjects will be forever more greeted with broad acclaim?

  • Mark Holsworth

    To expect that a statue will remain in the same location is to dictate to the future. We can no longer have the arrogance of the past. That shouldn’t stop us from putting up new sculptures, but we need to learn from the mistakes of the past.
    Public art will always be a response to community values. We are currently witnessing a change in community values demonstrated in the removal of some statues.
    Learning from past mistakes City councils now only promise the artist that public art will remain in a particular location for a set number of years – if it works for more years then so much the better. There are also more commissions for temporary sculptures.
    We should not allow such dictates to determine how public spaces look. To justify a statue’s location only by its current existence is not enough. There has to be more of a reason for it to remain; more than a dubious claim of educational value.

  • andrewkingaa

    I imagine that each generation has sought to avoid so-called mistakes of the past. Why would it do otherwise?

    Arrogance is not a failing restricted to the past.

    • Mark Holsworth

      So, we shouldn’t let the past determine how the present city looks as there will be always be plenty of sculptures trying to find a place in the city (more than anyone, apart from the sculptors and foundries, want).

    • andrewkingaa

      In Melbourne, there is no shortage of vacant places to erect statues and public art.

      So, what criteria do you propose should be used to determine whether a work ‘deserves’ to be relocated – and who should decide (the local council, for instance?)?

      Am I correct in presuming that you do not condone the destructions of public works?

    • Mark Holsworth

      I don’t consider that a city with statues and memorials honouring murderers, child rapists, or fascists to be desirable. Many Australians have a different opinion to me, unlike many people in the USA, NZ, UK and Belgium.
      I think that it is remarkable that many Australians have been so concerned about paint on some Cook statues but not when a memorial to the Frontier Wars was dynamited or the two times that a statue to Yagan decapitated.
      It speaks to the character of the country that if you have enough money, you can get a statue to almost anyone displayed in a public place in Australia. As you say there is plenty of space and the local city councils whose responsibility it is haven’t been fussy.

    • andrewkingaa

      So that I can better understand what you find undesirable in a city (Melbourne?), it’d be helpful to know to which so-called murderers, child rapists, and fascists you refer. No doubt you possess irrefutable proof to back up these claims.

      I’m curious how you know that many Australians have a different opinion to you, and, conversely, how you know that many people in the USA, NZ, UK and Belgium don’t. Perhaps you’ve commissioned a series of opinion polls?

      As I pointed out previously, woe betide the council that proposes to erect a statue of a person who is unpopular with its constituents. I imagine that council decision-making is more a matter of consensus than money.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Gary Foley and Robbie Thorpe put the statue of John Batman for theft, trespass, rape and genocide. Batman was found guilty of all four charges.
      What more do you want? A white man sitting in judgement with a trial under Australian law. You can’t put statues on trial. You can’t even defame the dead. History and the First Nations have already passed judgement on Batman. Fortunately for Melbourne, a smart real-estate developer was watching the money and removed the Batman statue a few years ago.
      Now there is just a memorial to Batman that is a bit of traffic hazard at Queen Victoria Market. The stones would be much better used to make a BLM memorial or a memorial to colonial genocide. There are a couple of sculptors that I could suggest for such a project, a couple of them are Indigenous, have experience working with stone and would love to take some stone cutting tools to Batman memorial.
      The fact is public sculpture is not about the history nor the art, it is a popularity contest, a political display or a tourist attraction. It is the jewellery that a city wears and like all jewellery, it says something about the wearer, it makes a statement.

  • Russ

    I’m not so sure about the jewellery aspect but all public sculpture is usually a direct reflection of a cultural position at the time as you mentioned.

    Isn’t there more to be learnt from the keeping of any given statues and simply changing the plaque that identifies it. Or adding a second statue that educates viewers. Having visible reminders we can learn from is better than erasing previous thoughts and ideas.

    Erasing history is the path to repeating it.

    I don’t think I agree with defacing or toppling any public art. We should grow on it and assume that any art we create will also be challenged in the future.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Statues are not history and their removal will not erase history. There is nothing to be learnt from a staute aside from what you can see and adding or changing a plaque doesn’t help anything, it is just a stalling tactic to argue about words. The statue of Captain Cook in Treasury Gardens, Melbourne was originally made to advertise a new houseing estate; a bit of promotional bling.

    • Russ

      My argument is they should never be destroyed. They should be given context. They should be rotated through the galleries of our public spaces. So people can learn the good and the bad of history and the times that came before them.

      As for promotional bling, that doesn’t matter. Most art is just decoration. It doesn’t mean it cant teach you something about the cultural context it was created in.

    • Mark Holsworth

      How about write a letter of complaint to the US Embassy about their army tearing down the statue of Saddam Hussain in Bagdad and see what response you get from them? Or do you only care about Australian statues?

    • Russ

      In response to your rhetorical pithiness, a letter of complaint won’t achieve anything. Let’s keep it with civil discourse rather than war. As that’s a vastly different discussion.

      Yes, as an Australian i have an opinion on what we do in Australia. My current thoughts are the destruction of history does not undo the damage done. That position is flexible. but you are not in a position to argue the opposite as you are not directly affected by the atrocities of history. You are a beneficiary. (That does not mean you should feel guilty about that)

      Have you been to Memento Park in Budapest? Case in point.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Speaking of war, invading places and not ever getting a peace treaty, how about the Kulin Nation and other Indigenous peoples on whose land you want to debate this matter. How about you tell them your quibbles about removing statues celebrating murderous colonials? You are likely to get a history lesson from them.
      I haven’t been to Memento Park but can you give me directions to the place in Germany where I can see all the Nazi statues?

    • Russ

      While I cringed at the mention of nazis (conversational jumping of the shark) I think there is a point in there. The german method of dealing with the third reich was an interesting one. One they had to deal with a second time after the fall of the berlin wall.

      Yuliya Komska who teaches german studies at Dartmouth wrote this for the washington post: (https://www.inquirer.com/philly/opinion/commentary/charlottesville-nazis-germany-communists-monuments-trump-20170817.html)

      “These lessons from Germany should serve as a cautionary tale for Americans rushing to destroy every Confederate monument within reach. Rather than rashly overcompensating for decades of inaction by haphazardly tearing down or hiding Confederate monuments, Americans should have the painful debates necessary to decide the fate of these relics of a bygone era. If German history is any indication, simply turning the page isn’t an option.”

      The article is an interesting read

    • Mark Holsworth

      When discussing genocide – and remember Batman was involved in the genocide of the Indigenous people of Tasmania – it is never jumping the shark to mention the Nazis.
      Komska’s articles article is worth reading because German has been able to deal with its history and remove statues whereas the US and Australia have not removed statues and are unable to deal with their histories.

    • Russ

      By your rationale surely we should paint over all paintings that depict something we are not comfortable with?

    • Mark Holsworth

      Local councils do paint over racist graffiti and street art. We are talking about public art and monuments by your rationale the statue of Saddam Hussain should still be standing in Bagdad (with a new explanation panel).

  • andrewkingaa

    I agree that ‘a popularity contest’ is a useful way of looking at the topic of public memorials. After all, a sufficiently compelling case must be made to the council (or relevant colonial authority) in order for a memorial to be commissioned. Presumably, the popularity of the subject(s) or event being memorialised is an important consideration.

    To some people, a decision that was popularly accepted in, say, the 19th century is unpopular today. Fair enough. Equally, there are some people who will support the original decision. I imagine that the vast majority of people don’t care, one way or the other.

    Contests need rules, and competent and unbiased referees/umpires/judges to interpret the rules of the contest and to make adjudications. Our courts of law are perfect examples of this, given the contest-like adversarial system.

    This leads me to the Foley and Thorpe kangaroo court “trial” of Batman. I must admit that when I initially read your claim that — the “trial” was held ‘under Australian law’ — I was flummoxed, but I hope that I now have a better understanding of your sense of humour. That was your point, right? That you can’t have a fair “trial” when only one side, the prosecution, is represented?

    Please, Mark, don’t misunderstand me. I am not defending or condoning in any way whatsoever the heinous crimes that you attribute to Batman. Besides, I’m not writing here about Batman; I’m writing generally.

    The future of historical monuments needs to be considered calmly, rationally and dispassionately, with respectful and courteous debate. There is no place in a civilised society for the lynch-mob-like criminality recently displayed in Bristol, or the brutishness displayed in Ballarat.

    • Mark Holsworth

      I thought historians were the correct profession to examine the lives of historical characters and that their verdicts would determine how the public (and city councils) respond to them.
      The idea of a trial seems absurd for so many reasons. The first of which whose law would this be conducted under. A serious question given that there is no legal basis for such a trial under Australian law. And given that ownership is contested and there is no treaty with the Indigenous population, Foley and Thorpe’s trial can’t be dismissed out of hand. I’m sure that Foley and Thorpe gave Batman’s statue a chance to speak in its defence.
      This raises a serious question of how would the client (a statue) advice their legal representatives? How are we to know that some would now want to plead guilty and have their own statue removed?
      Who would pay for all the lawyers? Especially when there would be so many better things to spend that money on.
      Perhaps instead of creating a whole new area of law. We need to look at the reasons why people are now unwilling to wait for the authorities to take appropriate action. How delaying actions, like establishing committees to look into a new didactic panel for a dubious statue, or conservatives finding some other excuse for the statute to remain the same.

    • andrewkingaa

      To which ‘appropriate action’ do you refer?

  • Mark Holsworth

    ‘Appropriate action’ would include everything that the current and past federal and state governments haven’t done to address racism in Australia. For example, most of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody have not been implemented. There are so many things that could have been done including not putting up a statue to Batman in 1978 and removing the monument to him at Queen Vic Market (as I suggested in a previous comment). If all this and much more had been done, maybe people wouldn’t be taking symbolic action against statues and monuments to racists.

    • andrewkingaa

      What do you propose should be done with the memorials that offend you? Should they be moved out of public sight? Should they be destroyed? Or what?

    • Mark Holsworth

      The best tactic is for these symbols of colonial oppression to be quickly moved out of public sight before someone is injured tearing them down. Oxford University’s example is often worth following and they have removed the statue to Rhodes.

  • andrewkingaa

    Ha!

    Where did the statue to Rhodes go?

    • Mark Holsworth

      I’m more concern with why Australia still wants to honour racists, when even the US, NZ, UK and Belgium no longer do, than where a piece of stone statuary has gone.

    • andrewkingaa

      I am not concerned if a statue is moved to a new location (not destroyed) PROVIDED the decision to do so is the result of a fair, balanced and equitable appraisal of the cases for and against the proposed move – and the process is conducted under the auspices of an independent authority. (I favour a right of appeal for such decisions.)

      Whilst I have no knowledge of Oxford University’s decision-making process in the case of their statue of Rhodes, perhaps it’s worthy of assessment?

      Such matters cannot be allowed to be ‘resolved’ by illegal means.

    • Russ

      Your rational approach goes against the blind woke-ness fuelling the general population these days… I fear the days of critical discussion, measured thinking and deep listening are gone.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Do you have a rational arguement or is it transmitted telepathically via phrases lie “blind wokeness”? Who do you think Batman is?

    • Mark Holsworth

      I’m not sure what is a fair, balence and equitable approach for the original owners of lands occupied through imperial violence to take to statues idolising the occupiers. Why should only one side have the right to violence and the right to destroy what belongs to the other? There is no treaty, no rights conceded, only abused.
      What happened in Oxford was that African students told Oriel College to take down the statue of Rhodes because it offended them. After much procrastinating the conservatives saw which way the winds were blowing and decided that it would be better to take it down.
      Why should an independent authority be required to decide on the fate of statues and not first in treaty negotiations between the Australian government and the Indigenous peoples? Or first, one to investigate police complaints? Or, to decide on the fate of sites of archeological significance in Australia?

    • andrewkingaa

      So, what about the memorialisation of Bob Hawke – what should be done?

  • andrewkingaa

    What do you mean by ‘the right to violence and the right to destroy’?

    Are you arguing that the causation of offence is sufficient justification for the removal of a statue.

    And what about Bob Hawke?

    • Mark Holsworth

      The Australian government is responsible for the largest act of iconoclasm in the world (per m2 x 1000 of years old), the petrogylphs at Murujuga, because they believe that they have the right to destroy anything on territory that they claim. Anyone attempting to prevent this destruction or insisting that a independent third party arbitrate such claims would be prevented by the violence of the police or other thugs that hired by the government. Not that any the people coming out now to worry about sculptures that came in editions of eight a century ago, were at all concerned about rock art thousands of years old got a proper hearing, defence council or to be moved to a safe location.
      What part of the right to violence and the right to destory don’t you understand? Why do you consider one sides right to take violent action or to destroy things as more or less legitimate than another side?
      Seriously, have you thought why people might be offended at a statue honouring a person who enslaved their grandfather, a person who killed their great grandfather and uncle, a person who stole their people’s land for generations?

    • Russ

      You are making claims as if we don’t agree with you. Yes the government has no right to destroy these things under any circumstance. Yes we agree that these deeds should be punished. You are making statements from a soapbox as though only you know the truth and we don’t understand. Violence and destruction has never been a viable solution to anything worthwhile. “….Riot is the language of the unheard…” I fully agree with MLK in this instance but what the next step? How do you move this to a phase two?

      No one is saying there isn’t good reasons to have some seriously fucking important (and hard) conversations today, now, about the state of the world.

      But no solution is going to be black and white. There is a million shades of grey (humans) that need to be considered. Sweeping change is not going to happen through the physical destruction of a few statues or beer brands called Colonial.

      What is phase two? What can be presented to the public as a movement they can get involved in because the majority don’t want to hit the streets and vandalise. Start petitions maybe. Door knock for signatures.

      Maybe with all your expert knowledge on statues you can put a list together?

      To keep coming back with more and more instances of transgressions does not offer a path forward. It only fuels more division, more hashtag cowboys, more extreme views.

      How about you try and view the situation with a solution in mind that equals perfect utopian harmony in 20 years. Because the only way to get there is serious political change, conversations, new leadership, young people starting political parties etc.

      Now you’ll come back at me with more instances of unfairness; enough is enoughness; the time has come; they’ve been trying to change for xx number of years and nothing has happened; and talk drastic change. None of it will work. I will agree with the problems. You are preaching to a converted but you are not listening to the single argument.

      Unfettered destruction, violence or upheaval changes nothing. It only disrupts the serious conversations or change that need to be had. In this day and age surely working within the system and creating serious change should be the ultimate goal? or

    • Mark Holsworth

      You are ranting. You are making no sense. First and foremost: why do you expect me to answer questions when you have not even made an attempt to reply to any of mine?

  • andrewkingaa

    To me, Russ makes much sense. Calm, reasoned and dispassionate discussion is clearly superior to muddled thinking and violent deed.

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