As least one has already had a say about the Roosevelt monument: David Hammons, in a 1991 group show called “Dislocations” at the Museum of Modern Art. For his installation there, titled “Public Enemy,” he surrounded photomurals of the sculpture with sandbags and, police barriers. Who was being protected? It — or us? Way back then he wanted it gone, and now the deal’s done. The museum should ask him over for a victory lap.
And the museum could commission new work, keep it impermanent and have it change often, even daily. Mr. Hammons’s “Public Enemy” was ephemeral. When the MoMA show ended, his installation disappeared, perhaps into closets, studios, dumpsters; I don’t know where. More and more right now, impermanence makes sense. Losses from Covid-19, the flood of violent deaths and a new political art that seems to exist entirely on plywood and pavement contribute to this perception.
We’re at an inflection point in this country, potentially the most significant one in generations. Black Lives Matter brought us here. Now it’s everyone’s job to sustain the momentum. New art certainly has a contribution to make. So do our historical public images.
Some examples, like the Roosevelt and Shaw monuments, are eye-and-mind grabbers, dense packages of information and emotion. We should study them as closely and critically as we do the monuments of any age and culture. We don’t have to like them; we just need to understand them, examine their mechanics, what made them persuasive in their time, and how that persuasion works, or doesn’t, now.
By comparison, most of the commemorative statues now under attack across the land — and there are more and more each day — have little visual charisma. They’re generic period images of white male power. You’re tempted to think: If they go, small loss. Let’s move on.
Then you remember that each of those images comes with a name and a history, and some of those names belong to murderers, enslavers and genocidists. And their history is our history. It’s good to keep reminders of that visible, somewhere. Sometimes the most effective way to push yourself into the future is by reviewing the record of how bad the past has been.