The statue died as an art form 103 years ago, when Marcel Duchamp submitted a porcelain urinal to a New York art exhibition. So why, in the 21st century, are we obsessing about putting up statues of new heroes to replace the old villains? All this political radicalism is being betrayed by artistic conservatism.

The moment slave trader Edward Colston’s statue was pulled down in Bristol was a brilliantly apposite piece of performance art: a dadaist act of creativity through destruction that belongs alongside Banksy’s auto-shredding picture as a spectacle of great British cultural dissidence. But it has been followed by a sterile conversation about who does and doesn’t deserve a statue that adds nothing whatsoever to anyone’s understanding of slavery, the British empire, racism or any other subject.

This is because statues are dumb. They cannot represent big or complex themes. All they can do is function as crude symbols. They reduce history to celebrity culture. The reason why so many Victorian statues survive in our cities is that 19th-century historians believed history was created by ‘great men’ and their leadership. So every general who won an obscure imperial battle has a statue somewhere. Officers, before 1914, were thought to be more real, somehow, than their men. They alone got statues.

It was the First World War that killed this view – and it also killed the statue. It’s no coincidence that Duchamp, whose brother died on the western front, exhibited his contemptuous urinal in 1917, during this mass slaughter. When Britain erected a national monument to the war dead on Whitehall, it took the form of the Cenotaph – a stark, abstract image of infinite loss and a suffering too vast to be contained in a statue of some supposedly heroic figure. This was not some avant garde gesture forced on a baffled public. The architect Edwin Lutyens designed it as a temporary sculpture for the armistice ceremony and it became permanent by popular demand.

We seem so much shallower than the Britons a century ago. They craved as they mourned their sons and husbands, not the crass lie of a statue but the contemplative modern poetry of the Cenotaph.

Slavery is a tragedy on the same scale as the First World War. It needs to become an unavoidable part of British national memory, as 1914-18 is. Historians calculate that about twelve million Africans were forced on ships and taken across the Atlantic between 1500 and the 1860s. Around a million people died just on the ocean journey itself. British slavers specifically were responsible for transporting three million Africans by 1807, when parliament abolished the trade. It’s a significant part of the total and was almost all perpetrated in the 18th century by ships from Liverpool and Bristol. We owe those three million. But what kind of an art work could convey the scale and nature of the crime?

The horrors of the Second World War defied anything a figurative sculpture could say. There is, on a hill in Russia, a stupefying attempt to depict its nightmares in statues. The Soviet-era monument to the battle of Stalingrad boasts a colossus of Mother Russia surrounded by statues and reliefs of heroic fighters hurling grenades and firing machine guns. It is an empty and inhuman display of Stalinist kitsch that does not admit the true chaos of the battle. You can find the story properly told in Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad. Nor does it acknowledge that the Germans who died were human beings, too.

426 Bronze Statues Gtres

To comprehend the folly of depicting history through the dead art of statues, imagine that we chose to commemorate the Holocaust with a statue of an Auschwitz prisoner. Why might that be inadequate? Because we know, we have learned, that the enormity of this crime defies such simple renderings. Holocaust memorials instead use the full resources of modern art to help us comprehend that six million people were murdered for being Jewish. Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in central Berlin, is like an entire field of cenotaphs. Blank slabs stretch out on a piece of prime real estate that they render valueless by making it, for ever, a cemetery of abstract empty tombs. This is a monument that refuses reassurance and scorns apology. It bears witness to a crime that cannot be reversed or rectified.

In the same city, Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum is deliberately scarred by architectural voids that suddenly plunge you into unheated, concrete desolation. Whenever I remember standing in one of these deathly spaces, I also remember going down into the dark abyss beneath Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. This is where thousands of captured Africans waited to be dragged in chains on to British ships in the 18th century. It is a ready-made installation of memory and sorrow: a sepulchral black hole that tells a terrible truth about British guilt.

If only this void could somehow be brought back home to Britain. Well, surely it can. Contemporary art offers ways of doing so. Instead of another statue, another token symbol, we could use the full scope of 21st-century art to express both the nature of Britain’s slave trade, and the impossibility of making art that can restore millions of stolen lives.

But we don’t seem to want such serious art. We have no adequate Holocaust memorial in Britain, either. Why? Because of this ridiculous obsession with the selfie in bronze. The statues of heroes we put up today may look as dull and questionable to future generations as what we are tearing down. It’s time we recognised the larger truth. It is not just statues of slavers that are lies. All statues are lies, of one kind or another. 

Published in The Guardian on July 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.