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How to Watch a Confederate Statue Fall

Joel Schechter
August 22, 2017

by Joel Schechter


While I applaud the decision of local governments and activists to remove statues of Confederate soldiers and leaders from public spaces, insofar as the statues represent defenders of slavery, I also want to note the curious spectacle of an American President verbally defending these statues against their critics and topplers -- while asking Congress to provide no federal funding for the arts in this fiscal year.

Trump has never before shown so much interest in public works of art, which these soldier statues are; they may be old-fashioned, racist, and unsightly, but they are sculptures nonetheless. Trump is not known as an arts patron, unless it involves someone painting his portrait or carving his image onto Mount Rushmore. So this support of the statues is a new development. Could his love of Confederate statues be the first sign of Trump’s willingness to support American artists? Might Congress be able to call off its intention to save the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities from Trump’s budget?


In a backhanded tribute to the power of sculpted human figures (some mounted on bronze horses), Trump accused statue-topplers of “changing history” and “changing culture,” as if the continued display of the statues prevents history and culture from changing. Who knew sculptors could do so much with so little? The President’s barely articulated theory of art suggests that these works constitute permanent, unchanging forms of history and culture, at least as long as they stand in public. The statue-removers thus alter history and culture by ending public homage to men who violently fought against the United States of America — the white nationalists of their time. Previously, Trump thought Meryl Streep was “overrated” as an actress, and he showed disdain for the musical show Hamilton after its cast addressed Vice President Pence. Clearly theater is not Trump’s favorite art. Could metalwork be his first true art love?


Trump could create more controversy (which he seems to enjoy) by signing a federal rescue plan that would move a group of soldier statues to a Civil War battlefield. It would be known as “The Old Soldiers’ Home,” probably located on a Southern battle site, and he would announce that the Pentagon will pay for it. Will it receive bipartisan funding? Will it result in an increased flow of funding to our strangled National Parks system following its centennial celebrations, in which they ran out of napkins and coffee creamers? Will Trump allow drilling for oil on the consecrated “Old Soldiers’ Home” grounds?


While practices of racism and white supremacy are sustained by the display of the existing Confederate soldier statues, the President could commission new works by African-American, Mexican-American, and immigrant-American sculptors, scenes of flight and sanctuary, to show he is ready to move beyond the Civil War into newer representations of American culture and history. Again, the Pentagon could pay for it, or at least provide scrap metal for the artists to reshape and weld.

Far be it from me to berate the President for promoting a category of visual arts by defending old statues. I only wish he praised some other sculptors, say Claes Oldenberg, Alexander Calder, Mark di Suvero, Marisol, or Nikki de Saint Phalle. Bring us into the 20th century if not the 21st, Mr. President! Now support other arts (new dance, theater, painting, poetry) as well!

If Trump needs a speech with which to justify the plans, now that Bannon has left the staff, Trump might draw on the writings of Harold Rosenberg, Walter Benjamin, and Yvonne Rainer, or simply hire an art critic such as Hal Foster (an editor of October and author of the Trump-centered essay Pere Trump).


Let all the changes in White House arts policy begin with this leak to the press: The President is an admirer of public artworks, and their embodiment of history and culture. He had to wait until after the election to reveal such controversial information, but the secret is out.

Joel Schechter is a contributing writer of Jewish Currents, and author of Radical Yiddish.