When a monument’s time has passed
Art is a reflection of, a conversation with—and, often, a searing critique of—life and politics. That has become clearer than ever of late as individuals and communities reappraise and, increasingly, reject the presence of monuments that pay tribute to a dark time in our nation’s history. As elsewhere in the United States, the Columbus community finds itself discussing and critiquing the problematic legacy of our namesake, Christopher Columbus.
At Columbus College of Art & Design, we understand the symbolic power of art and the importance of art criticism and art history as part of the political conversation. In 2017, Columbus College of Art & Design’s President, Dr. Melanie Corn, herself an art historian, wrote to students about racism, bigotry, and why Confederate monuments should be removed from public spheres.
A few months after that letter, in spring 2018, the college hosted Bree Newsome, an activist and filmmaker known for removing the Confederate flag at the South Carolina State House, as part of its President’s Lecture Series.
In the essay below, Dr. Aaron Petten, an Assistant Professor in the History of Art & Visual Culture major at CCAD, discusses the weighty heritage of the city’s statues honoring Columbus, and why their time presented in the public spotlight and without critique, is over as we as a people move forward.
Statement on Statues & Monuments
Dr. Aaron Petten
Assistant Professor, MFA Thesis Advisor
History of Art & Visual Culture, Master of Fine Arts
Public statues and monuments are central to the ways in which art and culture intersect in symbolically memorializing, commemorating, and representing the place in which that object stands. Public statues and monuments are visual imaginings that reinforce the history and myths of a shared culture and heritage.
Even after the reckoning with Confederate monuments in the South in recent years, discussions, let alone actions, to remove statue-monuments of Christopher Columbus were rarely part of the more widespread public discourse. Finally, with what currently seems to be a critical mass in a newly ignited enlightenment of racial injustice, and a populist will to correct and to begin mending the array of injustices, there are more and more calls to remove the symbols used to reinforce harmful ideologies of racial oppression and suffering. There have been renewed calls to have statues and monuments that commemorate figures who were racists, slavers, and genocidal murderers removed from the common public arena, lest that public arena be a museum that attends to the multiple historical contexts of the social history of those statues and monuments—both real and imagined.
Part of our city’s heritage is based on the sanitized and romanticized mythology of a historical figure. That is undeniable. Many of the feats attributed to Christopher Columbus are downright false. One cannot technically discover a place already inhabited by humans, and even if we are to accept the weaker notion of “discover” to mean that he is the first European to find his way to North America, that is also patently false, as the Icelandic Viking explorer, Leif Erickson, found his way to North America some 500 years before Columbus. What aren't false, but what have long been omitted from history in favor of the romantic mythologization of Columbus, are his colonization of South America and Caribbean, his genocidal campaign against the Arawak people, as well as his role as one of the principal agents of the transatlantic slave trade. Fortunately, these historical truths have become more common knowledge over the past several decades.
Unfortunately, there are a great number of monuments and statues throughout the public spaces of this country that are constant symbols of the systemic institutionalized racism that Black people, Indigenous people, as well as other people of color have to walk by on their way to work, school, or some leisurely event. Public monuments and statues are aesthetic instantiations of collective historical memory or collective cultural identity. While arguments about artistic merit are worthwhile considerations, the vast number of public monuments and statues that are explicitly about heritage and history are rarely exemplary of aesthetic innovation or novelty. Instead, many public artworks, in the form of monuments and statues, are symbolic inflections, reflections, and reinforcements of the white supremacy of our shared collective memory. Many, like Christopher Columbus statues, normalize the historical power dynamics that are rooted in racial oppression and racial violence by erasing the legacy of their crimes against humanity. Are the genocidal actions and the development of the transatlantic slave trade at the forefront of most people’s minds as they pass by the statue of Columbus? Perhaps not. But therein lies the essential problem with systemically engrained structural racism. It is sometimes so engrained that the real history of figures like Columbus is hidden behind the romanticized myth.
The Christopher Columbus statue at Columbus’ City Hall was a gift from the city of Genoa in Italy in 1955. The bronze statue is something of a post-academic modern style in the manner of Rodin made by Edoardo Alfieri, who was a minor figure in the Futurist movement in the 1930s, which itself carries some dubious connotations. The provenance of the monument outside of the Ohio Statehouse arguably holds even less aesthetic significance. Ultimately, like many of the statues and monuments in the U.S., the merit of the statue is more about its cultural heritage and history than its artistic significance. Regardless of any of this, if we are to be a truly inclusive society that embraces our multicultural diversity, then we need to remove those symbols and figures that have reinforced the subjugation and oppression of populations of color from our public spaces. The Christopher Columbus statue at City Hall and the Columbus monument at the Ohio Statehouse must be removed from the common space, placed in storage, and placed in the Ohio History Center with their various multiple historical contexts and cultural implications. The aesthetic experience of public art on public land should be for the public, and our diverse public is ready for anti-racist monuments and statues that memorialize and commemorate the shared humanity of all of its citizenry in both myth and history.