Saturday, December 17, 2011

Saturday Extra: Guerilla Civic Engagement on the Landscape

WTVR-TV in Richmond has all the details
and more photos
of the "vandalism"
Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin brought the community's attention to some installations placed on the fences surrounding a few of the statues along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. The signs are a redress of sorts to the Confederate narrative told through granite, marble and bronze on the massive monuments. They highlight black citizens of Virginia who challenged the racist establishment of the state throughout its history.

Levin characterizes the signs as "vandalism," while the local CBS affiliate WTVR calls the signs, "street art." So which are they?

The incident reminded me of a clear-cut instance of vandalism which happened back in April on the same street in the same city. On the night of April 6th, someone spray-painted "NO HERO" across the bases of both the Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis monuments. This was a destructive act at its core, attempting to permanently change the landscape.

rvanews had excellent coverage of the
in April.
But this type of vandalism is weird and different than a simple tag in an alley behind a 7-11. There was true, deep meaning behind both the act in April and the most recent one. The spray painting in April was not a tag or a gang sign. It was simple black block letters, with two words. Those words spoke to the monument. The vandal was having a dialogue with the monument. Yes, that dialogue was destructive, but the thought and meaning behind that act was pure and deeply intellectual. The person working the spray-can could not find themselves represented in that place. They found a way to talk back to it in their own language.

They were engaging with the meaning of the place. The medium they chose was destructive and illegal, but the engagement with the place and the thoughts behind the act were deep.

Fast-forward to this week. Another voice entered the dialogue. The same deep thought took place, the same pure sentiment was expressed. This new artist chose a different mode of expression, that of wood, cheap hardware and mixed-medium. The installations were bolted to the fences surrounding the monuments, not leaving a mark on the outdated marble and bronze. They serve as stark counterpoint to the Confederate narrative. They plaques speak to Davis, Jackson and Stuart. They hold a dialogue with the historical landscape. And, most importantly, they do so without destruction of the landscape.

Are the plaques vandalism? No. They could be best classed, if called a crime at all, as littering.

The newest actions are truly civic engagement through constructive artistic expression. They begin a discussion on the landscape, shift its meanings and help the citizens of Richmond see multiple perspectives in sharp, geographic contrast.

Poll results on as of 12:01am seem to show the community at
large sees the tablets as harmless expression, not vandalism.


  1. Contrarian time John!!

    Looks like whomever placed these plaques did so with thought and understanding. However does the fact that these monuments tell the so-called Confederate Narrative make them acceptable targets for this semi-civil disobedience?

    I know it is more than fashionable to decry the southern heroes but let us examine the converse. What if I went to Grant's Tomb or Sherman's and Sheridan's graves and placed plaques naming and describing the victims of their version of total war - rapine, murder, arson, and mayhem. OR to turn it into a politically correct narrative, listed Native Americans and described the atrocities ministered upon them by these very men so often described as American heroes?

    My guess is that such the first act would receive round rebuke filled with righteous indignation. The second act would be given a muted response from the same group, a response that reflects the befuddled nature right and wrong, freedom and oppression among historians and enthusiasts.

    To answer a question that was not proffered, heroism is in the eye of the beholder. Attempting to hold human beings to inhuman standards of morality is a case in painting a picture that never was.

  2. Jackson, Stuart, Davis, and Lee were TRAITORS that should have been HANGED. If someone were to raise arms against the infallible U.S. in our current jingoistic era, they would be water-boarded till their heads fell off. Yet, inexplicably, tea baggers who are so afraid of invisible threats to their endless freedom, find these terrorists and guerrillas of the 19th century somehow heroic. Those monuments to murder and bigotry should be torn down. If anyone wants to start a group to make this a reality, holla atchya boy.

  3. @Robert - I actually think I personally would be fine with a counter-point to something like Grant's Tomb or Sherman's grave, giving the opposite perspective. I am a warts-and-all historian, which means I want to see the conflict within an historical character's soul. Let me see Jefferson's beautiful treatises of liberty right beside his bill of sale for slaves he purchased to work his plantation.

    We humans are nothing if not complex and contradictory creatures, and likewise we Americans are nothing if not complex and contradictory producers of culture.

    I cannot speak for my peers in the liberal-leaning history world. But give me conflict, pure and unadulterated. Show me difference. Show me the magnanimous father of a nation and who barely could win a battle in his own revolution. Show me the brilliant political and socially aware satirist, the biting tongue against racism who was a racist in his youth. Show me the Texan who became President who in the span of a decade went from fighting against Civil Rights to being one of its firmest proponents in the White House and having the willingness to give up the South for a generation to secure them for one group of people. Internal struggle, personal dialogues, make the most engaging history.

  4. @Al - I understand exactly what you are saying, especially for people like those dotting monument avenue. They gave and broke a sacred oath to uphold the Constitution. That means a lot to me, as someone who in my day job is a Federal employee, and who took that oath very seriously when I took it.

    But, effacing these markers and monuments from the landscape is not the best option in my opinion. Instead, we should make them centers of debate and discussion, where we face these hard questions like what is treason and how should we meet it. We should talk about these men, discuss their support of a means of systematized murder and keep their memory alive in American consciousness if for nothing else than as a deterrent. These monuments of bronze can serves as a warning to us. They remind us what happens when we stop seeing people as individual human beings with hopes, dreams and emotions and start viewing them solely as the faceless, inhuman labels we apply to them (be the label "slaves," "tea baggers," "occupiers," or something else... take your pick).

    Removing Lee et al. would efface a teaching space from the landscape. Instead, I say that counterpoints like those put up by this guerrilla artist (and moreso official counterpoints which might be agitated for by folks like yourself) serve more to educate, underline and in some cases subvert the original meanings of these monuments than tearing them down ever could.

  5. @Robert - Sites in the West have to deal with anonymous amendments to interpretation of Indian-Old World conflict pretty regularly. I don't think there's even space here to summarize how contentious guerrilla interpretation has been at Little Bighorn (see E. Linenthal's Sacred Ground for a good introduction to that).

  6. Al let me close with something that will surely fire your shorts:

    This nation was founded on treason, our "birth certificate" document justified that treason, we celebrate traitors as arch-patriots and denigrate patriots as arch-traitors, we celebrate the day of our highest treason as one of freedom.

    From the British point of view the above sentence is exactly the way Americans believe about their founding. Herein is also the great historical trap - the importance of recognizing and understanding of bias and point of view, and relegating presentism to the recesses of the mind.

    As a southerner I DO NOT see those men as traitors. I see them as men who saw fit to fight for a greater cause (not lumping it all on slavery here so don't get on that soapbox). Was that cause correct? From a 21st century perch it most certainly was not. What did they see themselves as? The written record is pretty clear on that.

    So before you begin to spew inaccurate and vitriolic statements, please take some time and understand how point of view and the values and beliefs of time and place affected the history.

  7. @Robert,
    I think you are weaving two different debates into one. On one hand, you state we must "relegate presentism to the recesses of the mind," yet you then go on and state your current point of view, namely, that you don't see those who are remembered on Memorial Ave as traitors. Understanding how they saw themselves is one thing, while understanding how you see them today is another. Or quite simply, there's history and then there's how we feel about history.

    My real question though is this - As an American, how do you see those men? That personal and internal debate between different parts of ourselves, is what I find most interesting.

  8. Jacob I don't believe I am doing tht at all. I pointed out Al's comment about traitors, and how tht flows from a point of view much like the almost unanimous praise of the AmRev. Flat out calling them such is an act of presentist thought based on a certain point of view. Personally I do not see them as such, nor did thy see themselves as such. The statement as fact is my beef, because it is indelibly wrapped in that a layer of 21st century moral hand wringing.

    As an American my feelings do not change. Do I support all of their cause? Of course not, nor do I want to live in the world they would have created. That however is not the issue, for if they were traitors then most certainly were Washington and Jefferson.

  9. Robert,
    I started to write a reply, but ultimately it became a long winded and wandering piece - I'll try to revise it as post in the near future. A couple of last points though - calling the Southerners traitors is not presentism. Thousands and thousands of Northerners, and quite a few Southerners themselves, thought it was an act of treason. They said so in their dairies, newspapers, and political sentiments - "Preserve the Union." Calling the Southerners traitors isn't a 21st century moral hand wringing, it's just as period as the Southerners defending themselves that they were "fighting the 2nd American Revolution."
    Lastly, no one ever said that Washington and Jefferson weren't traitors. They were - to the British Crown. They didn't however try to overthrow the American Democracy, which Southerners did try to betray.