For Timothy P. Schmalz, an Ontario-based sculptor, that’s really the only way to describe the renewed push to tear down statues that commemorate people who are now deemed out of step with modern morals.
When a Confederate figure gets toppled in the U.S., or a prime minister who was part of brutal treatment of Indigenous people is destroyed in Canada, it says more than just disagreeing, Mr. Schmalz said. It’s a claim that we would have known better, acted otherwise.
And that’s the hubris.
“When one destroys or puts a Confederate statue in a museum, out of sight, out of mind, what they’re suggesting is if we were in their place we would have done something different. And that’s their arrogance,” he told The Washington Times.
It’s a notion that challenges the current zeitgeist, where statues are being taken down by everyone including city councils, university boards and mobs of demonstrators fired up over racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Floyd, a Black man, died while in Minneapolis police custody last May.
Each monument is both history and memory, saying something about the generation that erected it and about the ensuing generations that allowed it to stand.
But Mr. Schmalz says it’s worth taking a reality check on the certainty the tear-down movement displays.
It was only two decades ago that the world rose in condemnation of the Taliban for destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, two massive sculptures carved into a cliff face some 1,400 years ago. Taliban engineers bored holes into the carvings and set dynamite to blast them to rubble on the orders of Mullah Omar, who declared them “false idols.”
“We’re doing the same thing,” Mr. Schmalz said. “What’s it’s doing is creating blind spots.”
To scholars, it’s sometimes known as “de-commemoration,” which is but one side of commemoration, where a people decides which holidays to celebrate, which cultural practices to perpetuate and which historical figures to venerate.
The statues are a specific part of it.
Often, they’re obscure — either the people or the sculptures themselves.
When protesters in the nation’s capital topped and burned a statue of Albert Pike, you could almost hear the collective “Who?” coming from D.C. residents. Pike was a Confederate general and also a Freemason. The statue, depicting Pike in civilian clothing, was erected by the Masons.
The tear-down movement has been rising in recent months, gaining significant ground in public opinion.
Just a few years ago, surrounding the Charlottesville, Virginia, clashes over a Robert E. Lee statue in August 2017, polling showed most Americans didn’t want to see the statues come down. This summer, polling was decidedly more mixed, with some surveys showing a majority now in favor of ousting Confederate figures from public spaces. A growing number also are willing to nix slaveholding founders of the nation.
For Mr. Schmalz, that’s just the kind of slippery slope he worries about.
“Are we going to go and dismantle the Colosseum because it was built by slaves?” he wondered.
Mr. Schmalz is an avowedly Christian artist who has had a piece placed in the Vatican and soon will install a companion sculpture near the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the campus of Catholic University in the District of Columbia.
Angels Unawares depicts 140 refugees packed into a boat. There are Jews escaping Nazi Germany, Irish famine refugees and Cubans fleeing the island. The Holy Family is also depicted. The Gospel of Matthew recounts the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt to avoid King Herod’s assassins.
It’s the type of sculpture, confronting a very real and heatedly debated question, that he says public spaces could benefit from.
“Art work has to work harder, and cities have to take the responsibility of continuing the culture in a positive way that is legible to the people,” Mr. Schmalz said.
The problem isn’t too many statues put up by previous generations — but rather the current generation has put up too few, or at least too few that have any real meaning. He bristles at sculptures of hamburgers, spoons, geometric designs and visual puns, which he said will give future generations a “distorted idea” of early 21st century sensibilities.
Mr. Schmalz says the current generation has ceded public morality to the past, and instead of celebrating our own heroes or grappling with our own morals, we’ve turned to abstractions devoid of value.
“Cities and artists have to work hard to bring out pieces that are in our urban centers, in our public spaces, that actually teach a message that is one of inclusion and love and peace and getting along with each other,” he said. “I don’t say leave them be. I say enhance, embellish, bring out more sculptures.”
Or, put more bluntly: “Fight sculptures with sculptures.”
It’s an approach President Trump is already taking.
In a speech at Mount Rushmore over the summer, he said he was creating a task force dedicated to rebuilding monuments to American heroes and to erecting new ones.
He also signed an executive order establishing a National Garden of American Heroes, listing more than 30 figures he considered must-include names, such as John Adams, Jackie Robinson and Orville and Wilbur Wright.
Locations are being scouted and other names suggested, and Mr. Trump set a July 4, 2026, deadline for opening the garden.
The president, looking to avoid abstract pieces, also dictated every sculpture “should be lifelike or realistic representations of the persons they depict.”
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