That’s why we’re not all that surprised that the last few weeks have been dominated by images of at least one toppled statue and arguments over the removal of others. It’s not just that values have changed since the statues in question were installed — Confederate statues representing the racially repressive South, for example — but the fact that we are living in a time when political hierarchies, expectations, and this country’s view of itself are being pushed from their pedestals. Whatever you think of President Trump’s performance as a leader, you can’t disagree that he has toppled the status quo, as he promised to do.
The controversy over the statue of Robert E. Lee that white supremacists sought to protect in Charlottesville, Va., this month traveled north very quickly, when Councilwoman Helen Gym called for the removal of the Frank Rizzo statue outside the Municipal Services Building.
Gym’s call quickly divided the city into two camps: those who revered Rizzo, and those who reviled his bullying, often racist ways. So who’s right? Who gets to decide? Should the Rizzo statue remain?
In our view, that’s the wrong question to ask.
This isn’t about Rizzo, or even the Rizzo statue. Not really. The debate is about the complicated nature of the simple bronze renderings of now-dead people — and the ideas they stood for. A better set of questions might be: Who’s a hero? Who gets to decide? What do we do with statues when they outlive their times by decades, if not centuries?
Architect Scott Aker, who teaches at Penn and is designing the Salvation Army June 5 Memorial Park, says monuments wait for our understanding. He believes part of the job of such monuments is to bring forth discussions and make people think about what they’re looking at. A monument not talked about, he says, is one that’s no longer valid.
The fate of the Rizzo statue should be aired in depth and in public. And soon.
Contextual information, which most statues lack, can help in such debates. Fortunately, the Association for Public Art’s website offers audio stories of many of the city’s statues, including Rizzo’s. These offer a fuller, rounder picture of the city’s statues and the people they represent. For example, Rizzo’s segment points to the charges of racism and also features remembrances by his son, Frank Jr.
Despite the complicated nature of our memorials, we have to accept the limitations inherent in a statue. It can’t convey the complexity of a person — or a legacy. And legacies themselves change.
Zenos Frudakis, the sculptor who created the Rizzo statue, once said he sculpts as a way of revolting against death and time.
The best thing we can do is to acknowledge that we, too, can revolt against death and time, but in the end, no one is ever going to win that battle — no matter how loudly we yell, or how many tiki torches are lit.