Photo by Tessa Rampersad on Unsplash

What Should We Think About Offensive Statues and Public Monuments?

A Q&A With Two Scholars on the Topic

Below are slected questions from two different interviews about the same topic. That topic: the tearing down of statues and monuments. The first set of questions is from Dr. Rachael Zeleny from the University of Baltimore, whose research considers the way in which we interact with public art. The second set includes answers from Manhattan Institute visiting fellow and New York University law professor Richard Epstein.

These interviews have been shortened for clarity.

Rachael Zeleny is a professor at the University of Baltimore. She has a cross-disciplinary curriculum and teaches courses in art, theater, rhetoric, and literature. Her research focuses on public art, museum presentation, and how those converge with political messaging. One of Zeleny’s courses — and main theme in research — focuses on the socio-political messaging of museum curators and public art, which she says was inspired by the work of La Tanya Aurty and Mike Maurawski’s “Museums Are Not Neutral” project. She has been published in a number of scholarly journals and has produced artwork of her own. She spoke with me about the artistic world and public art as she sees it, providing both her perspective as a professor and an artist.

Anthony DiMauro: What should we do with artistic expression that has outlived its appreciation — save them, get rid of them?

Dr. Rachael Zeleny: Rhetorically, how much space something takes up physically says so much for how we think it is in terms of its importance in our narrative. So, if we have an enormous statue, in the middle of a lawn, then we are sending the message to those who observe it, that this statue — in it’s physicality — takes up that much space in our cultural memory And so, to me that really becomes part of the problem — how much space do you give something? Another example, when I have my students walking around a museum and we see there is only one wall near the elevator that features black art, then that museum is sending a message about who it values and who it doesn’t.

So I have two answers to this question: If we keep artistic pieces like the Confederate statues, then they would have to be contextualized to a degree that I don’t know is even possible. You would either have to have a dosent near the statue at all times to be able to explain what the message is behind the statue, why it is there, why we still need to understand it, and its place in history — but that it doesn’t represent what the museum stands for. But this would likely be too much of a resource struggle to have somebody standing there all the time. The other option is to have a three page plaque — something else my friends in the museum tell me they will not do.

So I wonder if it should be more about a virtual gallery of these types of statues so that they do not take up the physical space anymore. And to have them contextualized within lesson plans where we’re able to understand what were the representations of the different types of supremacy and values in the past, as represented by these artworks, but to not allow them to take up the physical space. That to me would be the only reason worth saving them.

AD: Do you think the Confederate statues should be torn down?

RZ: I do. I don’t think they represent what we fought for. Again, when you let these statues take up so much space then we are sending a different message about what we still find important.

AD: Do you think the way the statues are removed matters?

RZ: It’s a hard question because I can’t say that I would take a statue down in that way — that’s not my persona. I would be one to be more likely to go through the voting process. You know, unscrewing things as opposed to bashing. But I also have to check my privilege there and realize that I’m not a vice that hasn’t been listened to for way too long.

I think, unfortunately, that major change in our country has happened because there gets to be that boiling point where the violence and the anger can no longer be hidden. We like to think that different things have gotten accomplished by peaceful protest, but it really — that’s really not true. People only tend to pay attention when there is that physical upheaval. So, I know that’s not really an answer to your question, but I think this is part of a larger conversation of things happening that’s the reason people are actually paying attention. And I think if you just unscrew things quietly, I’m not sure it has the same impact.

Richard A. Epstein is a renowned legal scholar and the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at New York University. Moreover, Epstein is the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law Emeritus and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago, and is also the Peter and Kirstin Bedford Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institutioan. His research and teaching focus on a number of topics including common-law subjects of property, contracts, and torts to constitutional law and law and economics. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of several books and journal articles, including Takings (a The Classical Liberal Constitution: The Uncertain Quest for Limited Government (Harvard 2014)

Anthony DiMauro: You describe yourself as a classical liberal. We hear this word thrown around a lot recently. How would you define classical liberalism?

Richard A. Epstein: Well, you could spend a lot describing all the ins-and-outs, but essentially what it does is it believes in limited government and strong property and contract rights, where the distinctive powers of government are the following: taxation, preferably flat or user fee, condemnation, fair value for public use, control of monopoly power, control of common pool resources — which are prey to overconsumption — , protection of the weak and so forth, but non-intervention in various kinds of markets that are free, including labor markets for the most part. So it takes a strong position against monopolies out of competitive markets, whether it be in real estate, banking, insurance, labor, or anything else.

AD: What is your response to those who claim the statues are offensive, for a number of reasons, and so should be taken down?

RE: One of things that a classical liberal says — in virtually every case — is the mere fact that somebody takes offense at what somebody else does is never a reason to restrict that comment — if all they do is take offense. Because that means that the angrier you can make yourself, the greater your entitlements over everyone else. So the way in which you secure rights is to scream at the top of your lungs and hope that someone gives a mere reasoned response, because then they could be quite outshouted.

If it’s defamation, that’s another thing. If it’s invasion of property rights, that’s another thing. And, of course, one of the things that is happening in these debates about the statues is that the mere offense principle is taking a terrible beating. We now have a rule about silence being violence, which is yet another version of the same problem. So the more upset I get, the more likely it is that I’m upset enough to rip down statues or to vote for their removal — more often the former rather than the latter. So these are very hard times for a classical liberal, who’s universalistic view tries to say: minimize the size of public spaces, which you can’t do with respect to the statue area, and then try to figure out a way in which all citizens have equal say.

AD: What does it mean to have a public statue torn down as opposed to voted for removal?

RE: It’s vandalism — pure and simple. The processes by which you can remove them — which require a majority or supermajority — are perfectly appropriate, but what happens is, you can have a statue which gets the support of 80% of the population, and five people can decide to rip it down, at which point they are opposing their will on everybody else. And then I assume they might even follow the logic that goes, well, we take down one statue, then we determine — the same 5 people — what other statue goes up in its place. This is a sort of minority rule by force. And I don’t care whether they are conservative or liberal. With respect to things that are public property, deliberative processes have to dominate unilateral actions.

AD: Some have said criticizing the tearing down of statues comes from a point of privilege — that the tearing down of statues is a way to be heard and listened to regarding reform. How do you respond to that claim?

RE: I regard that as a terrible cop-out. One of the things that troubles me, is that you tend to read in racist or illicit motives into statues, which were put up with very different kinds of intentions.

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