This week the media is brimming with ideas for getting rid of suddenly-generally-unwanted statues to the Confederacy.
It’s easy to imagine that 50 years from now, it will seem crazy that we had statues honoring the leaders of this mass treason, just as it seems crazy to us today that we had segregated water fountains 50 years ago.
To use an overused phrase: a tipping point seems to have been reached. Society at large has decided, finally, that enough is enough with these public monuments to traitors who attacked our country and sent hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths in the name of keeping slavery legal.
Agreed. So: what to do with all these hunks of bronze? Some would have us put them in museums. Some would have artists change or embellish them to undercut their original meaning. Some would have us melt them down and use the metal to erect statues to African-American civil rights leaders. Some would have us leave them where they are, but add explanatory plaques detailing a terrible era in American history — one whose repercussions continue to this day. Nobody wants to look at these things in the public sphere anymore, but nobody wants to erase history either, because forgetting history, particularly ugly history, is always dangerous.
Here’s an idea: have you heard of the Salvage Art Institute (SAI), a project of the Polish-American artist Elka Krajewska? As described in the Times Literary Supplement, “The SAI explores the phenomenon of “No Longer Art” – Krajewska’s preferred term for written off pieces – and the questions it poses. When is art beyond repair? What separates art from “objecthood”?”
The idea of SAI is to gather damaged artworks that have been officially declared as a “total loss” by insurers, or as Krajewska says, that have been “removed from art market circulation and liberated from the obligation of perpetual valuation and exchangeability.”
Up to this point, SAI has dealt with artworks that were accidentally damaged, presumably by collectors who just knew they should have moved that Koons ballon dog sculpture off that skinny console table. Krajewska hasn’t tackled politically charged, propagandistic monuments, but why couldn’t she? Her idea is to create a cozy houseboat floating in the New York harbor, crammed with all these broken and worthless works of art that have been paid off by insurers. The project’s policies state: “SAI confronts viewers with the material signs of alteration and the legible traces of each piece’s history.”
SAI addresses the murky question of whether damaged art is still art. It could also address whether a removed monument is still a monument, and to what? The symbolism of these Confederate statues has shifted. Like the aforementioned broken Koons dog, we could reveal the damage inflicted on these Confederate bronze statues during their removals (some are more damaged than others), without erasing the fact of their existence.
A houseboat wouldn’t be big enough to handle all these life-sized bronze soldiers and generals on horseback, so perhaps a decommissioned aircraft carrier with statues dotted around the flight deck? Sadly, the WWII carrier Antietam, named for the Union quasi-victory that gave Lincoln the excuse to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, was scrapped in the 1970s, but there are other decommissioned carriers still floating around. There could even be a downloadable app explaining the history and background of each statue, along with donation links to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The ship could be permanently docked in New Orleans or Savannah (a la the Intrepid museum in New York or the Midway in San Diego), or it could float around the perimeter of the country, making stops for voter registration rallies and doing special civil rights history cruises to Hawaii and Alaska.
Just an idea.