by Stephen Mayne
I’m an artist, a writer to be specific. As an artist I’ve spent a significant portion of my life paying attention to how people view art. In 1987 I saw outrage over Andres Serrano’s piece Piss Christ, a crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine. In 2001 I felt personally upset at the Taliban’s destruction of a 2000 year old statue of Buddha that stood 175 feet tall. Every year I go out of my way to look at the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged books. Over the past few months members of ISIL have been destroying art wherever they go. Today, students at the University of Texas defaced a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.
The reason I mention all of the above pieces together is because I had an emotional reaction to each one. Though right now I think the one I want to look the hardest at is the last one. Right now there is a flurry of legislation passing across the United States that is removing the Confederate flag from various federal and public buildings. I support that action; I don’t like the Confederate flag or what it stands for. While I’m sure there will be much debate on the topic and the right and wrong of it, that is not why I’m writing today.
After reading about the students’ actions at the University of Texas, I was conflicted in my reaction. On the one hand it was a representation of the Confederacy and I felt that it was offensive. As a writer I wondered about the sculptor. Who made the statue and why did they do it? Does it matter why they did it? This led me to the question, should we destroy it because it represents a period of United States history that is embarrassing and abhorrent?
I asked myself, if I am offended by what the statue stands for, do I have the right to ask it be destroyed, defaced, or removed? After this, I thought about the list included in the first paragraph. Piss Christ offended politicians, conservatives, and Christians around the world who demanded its destruction. They were outraged at its existence and how it seemed to make light of their beliefs, the core of who they were as individuals. They hated this piece and wanted it destroyed for what it stood for. At the time I argued in staunch defense of Piss Christ, that just because it offends you or you don’t understand it, doesn’t make it any less valid a piece of art that we can learn from.
When the Taliban destroyed the Buddha west of Kabul because it was an offensive piece that depicted a false god, I was angry. Something that stood for 2000 years was gone in seconds, never to be seen again because someone was offended. It didn’t matter that it had been created in a time when men had nothing more than hammers and chisels. That they probably needed to hang from ropes for hours on end, risking life and health to carve this. It didn’t matter that it survived 2000 years of earthquakes, floods, and God knows what else. It only mattered that they were offended.
Today, students defaced a statue of Jefferson Davis with spray paint. How long before they go out there with a sledge hammer because it offends them? I’m not saying that what he did was right. I’m not siding with the Confederacy. I just wonder if we should keep the statue. How far is too far when it comes to removing something offensive?
Apple Software, in response to everything going on around the Confederate flag, removed every program, game, or app from their store that featured the flag. On the surface this seems like a good decision, until you see that they also removed any program, game, or app that was about the Civil War. Any program that featured historic information about the war is gone because it had the confederate flag on it. Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t that a bit too far? Are we now exterminating any reference to the flag from a historic context? Isn’t it important to learn about this so that we don’t do it again?
Which begs the question: if we now get rid of this do we get rid of statues on battlefields depicting Confederate soldiers and generals? Do we remove murals from walls or paintings from buildings? When do we cross that line from taking a stand against racism to outlawing free expression of an idea; even an offensive idea? Where does it stop and how far do we go?
Warner Brothers Pictures once released an image before a selection of their older animated shorts that said, “The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.
While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today’s society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.” In this spirit, maybe we need to leave the statue of Jefferson Davis where it stands, not to honor his memory or what he stood for, but to remind us of how close we came to destroying America.