In a heated public hearing on the scale of a Greek drama, the New Orleans City Council voted on December 17 to remove four confederate monuments: Robert E. Lee, whose statue stands atop a victory column at the center of a traffic circle called Lee Circle; P.G.T. Beauregard, who sits astride a horse in a traffic circle at the entrance to City Park, leading to the New Orleans Museum of Art; Jefferson Davis, whose standing monument is located on Jefferson Davis Parkway in Mid-City; and the Battle of Liberty Place monument, an obelisk practically hidden behind a shopping mall at the edge of the French Quarter.
It’s that last monument that made the ordinance possible, in fact. Erected in 1891, it commemorates the White League’s victory over the integrated Republican Metropolitan Police in an 1874 battle for control of the city. Various plaques have attempted to modify the monument’s meaning, with a 1932 addition explicitly connecting the monument to white supremacy and a 1993 plaque rededicating the monument as a memorial to casualties on both sides.
In 1992, debate over the Liberty Place monument led the city council to pass an ordinance allowing monuments to be removed if they constitute a “nuisance,” defined as conflicting with legal requirements for equal protection of citizens, honoring or upholding the supremacy of one ethnic, religious, or racial group, promoting violence against one such group, becoming a site of violence, and costing too much to maintain in comparison to its historical significance. The mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, cited the ordinance when he started discussing the idea to remove the monuments, first presented in June in response to the massacre at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the subsequent removal of the Confederate flag from that state’s capitol grounds.
The vote was preceded by three hours of heated debate. The mayor opened the public comments with a speech defending his proposal, saying “we must reckon with our past.” Landrieu explained that the monuments are divisive, and that they were put up to support “a specific ideology … a cause that was wrong”—slavery. His speech, with quotes by Faulkner and Martin Luther King Jr., received equal measures of applause and boos.
During the public comments, opponents of the proposal argued that Davis and Lee were not, in fact, pro-slavery, that the majority of the citizens do not want the monuments removed, and that “you can’t rewrite history.” They suggested a compromise by adding interpretive plaques and building new monuments for figures now deemed important. Other objections were more practically grounded; the owner of a Civil War tour company said that the monuments were good for the tourism business.
The other side, arguing for the removal, insisted that the monuments are symbols of racism and oppression that continue in the present, that they represent the ideology of white supremacy, and that they are not accurate reflections of the Civil War era but instead Jim Crow monuments that reflect a Reconstruction South’s attempt to revive the “lost cause.” Members of Take ’em Down Nola, an activist group that has been leading rallies in support of the removal, wants to “take them all down,” not just these four, but every monument, every street name, and every public school name associated with slavery. References to Hurricane Katrina and the city’s approaching 300-year anniversary suggested an awareness that it was time to take stock.
I’ve watched this debate for months now, and at different times I’ve found both sides very convincing. But I’ve worried that the debate risks a politics of distraction, that arguing over these statues will distract us from issues that are harder to resolve. It is, after all, pretty easy to take down a statue compared to the task of eliminating racism, poverty, or high crime rates. Several speakers asked why we weren’t focusing on those issues instead. The response (from both sides) is always that symbols do matter, which really resonates with me. My profession’s foundational assumption is that symbols count. It has been fascinating to see how so many people really invest in these works of art, who assume that these monuments speak to our shared values and goals. Ultimately, it was the argument that the Confederate monuments no longer reflect our values that won out.
The contemporary art world has already consigned the standard equestrian monument or victory column to the dustbin of history. Artists may critique monuments, or design “countermonuments,” the term that scholar James Young used in analyzing contemporary German public projects about the Holocaust that critiqued the very notion of the monument. Sculpture now is all about the “unmonumental,” the name of a 2007-08 show at the New Museum in New York City. Thomas Hirschhorn’s 2013 Gramsci Monument at Forest Houses in the Bronx was more community center than statue (watch video here). Traditional monuments have been replaced with Relational Aesthetics and “socially engaged” art. Hopefully, that dialogue will shape the future of New Orleans monuments. For the time being, Mayor Landrieu has proposed moving them to a new Civil War park, a kind of sculpture park limbo.
A lawsuit seeking to overturn the decision has already been filed.
Rebecca Lee Reynolds is an assistant professor in the department of fine arts at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches art history.