It’s a lot more fun to topple a statue than to make one.
The roster of historical figures who have lost their public memorials in the past year or so is a lengthy one, from Christopher Columbus and William McKinley to Stephen Foster and even Kate Smith. In each instance the charge of racism, or some variant of it, has been the justification. Ironically there still stands the heroic bronze statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America and a racist of the most unapologetic stripe. His statue, as it happens, cannot be so easily yanked from view. So we discover from a fascinating exhibition at the Valentine, Richmond’s museum of history and culture.
The Davis monument is the centerpiece of Richmond’s Monument Avenue, a 1.5 mile boulevard with regularly spaced equestrian monuments, America’s only expression of the Confederacy in terms of monumental urbanism. Last year the Valentine, in conjunction with the Storefront for Community Design and mObstudiO of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, invited artists to “reimagine the entirety of Monument Avenue.” Their 64 proposals are at the heart of the exhibition “Monument Avenue: General Demotion/General Devotion.”
Monument Avenue began with a statue of Robert E. Lee by the brilliant French sculptor Antonin Mercié. Unveiled in 1890, it was part of the national wave of sentimental monument-building on the 25th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. But those that followed were in a different spirit. In 1902 Virginia passed a new state constitution that instituted a poll tax and literacy test for voting, drastically reducing the franchise. In that same year came a competition for a monument to Davis from which Northern artists were explicitly excluded (curiously, foreign artists were invited to submit).