Museum Ethics And Gift Ethics: The Robert E. Lee Statue

Lee statue down

Guest post by Steve-O-in-NJ

 Steve’s post below discusses the issues posed by this news [from the Smithsonian]: 

…In Charlottesville, Virginia, lawmakers decided to transform one torn-down monument entirely, reports Teo Armus for the Washington Post. Instead of storing a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, officials will melt down the 1,100-pound bronze monument into metal ingots—raw material that can then be used to create new art.

City council members approved the proposal unanimously on Tuesday morning, reports Ginny Bixby for the Charlottesville Daily Progress. Put forth by the local Jefferson School African American Heritage Center (JSAAHC), the plan was one of six considered by lawmakers during months of deliberation.

According to JSAAHC’s proposal, organizers plan to hold community listening sessions in barbershops, places of worship, schools and other businesses throughout Charlottesville. With community input, the “Swords Into Plowshares” team hopes to select an artist or artists to design a new public artwork by 2024.

The museum has already raised more than half of the $1.1 million required to bring its project to fruition and is continuing to fundraise online. Proceeds will be used to donate the transformed statue back to the city, where it will go on display by 2026.

JSAAHC executive director Andrea Douglas tells the Post that the project “will allow Charlottesville to contend with its racist past.”

***

Something is dead wrong about a museum, which is by nature dedicated to the preservation of the past, even out of the general public view, instead participating in the destruction and rewriting of the past.

You know where they did things like that? The USSR, where art was harnessed to be a propaganda organ of the state, and every museum, gallery, orchestra and dance company was dedicated first to pushing forward the State’s narrative before anything else, and anything that didn’t do that was pushed into the background or destroyed. The world is damn lucky that Russia was able to rebuild the Cathedral of Christ the Savior that was blown up (!) to make way for a “Palace of the Soviets” that never materialized due to WWII. The world is also damn lucky that the Soviets were nothing if not practical, and repurposed most other buildings (including churches and synagogues) rather than destroying them outright, and still didn’t quite dare to destroy things like the tomb of St. Alexander Peresviet (maybe useful as a nationalist hero) or the relics of St. Seraphim of Sarov (though they hid them away for a time). Otherwise, the physical link to all that history would be lost.

Know where else they did things like that? Reformation England under the bigoted rule of Henry VIII and later Cromwell. You can still go to Canterbury Cathedral, but you can’t see the jeweled shrine of St. Thomas Becket. In fact I think the only one of those shrines that didn’t get trashed was the one of St. Edward the Confessor, which no one was brave (or hateful) enough to destroy, and still rests in Westminster Abbey. Know where they’re doing things like that now? Afghanistan under the Taliban, and up until recently the parts of Iraq that were controlled by ISIS.

This won’t be the first, you mark my words. I really don’t like the idea of every city now raising honors to George Floyd as almost all of them did to MLK, who was on a much higher lever. I’m also going to be very disgusted if statues of Columbus, some raised by Italian-American communities by public subscription and donation as a thank-you to the communities where they got their start, begin to be melted down and reforged into either apologetic native statues or statues from the new pantheon of martyrs.

This isn’t about apologies, nor is it about correcting the historical record, and it’s not about righting long-standing wrongs (which it’s never too late to right, especially if you’re on the left). This is a modern-day attempt to erase the past and erase what came before, so that those who come after will never know things were any different, or will believe the past was wrong, and be that much easier to feed whatever the government narrative is. It is disgusting, unethical, and WRONG for institutions supposedly devoted to the preservation of history and the past to become parties to destroying it.

This also raises the question of the ethical use of a gift. It is one thing for you and me as individuals to quietly re-gift bottles of wine we don’t care for, or put a painting or vase that doesn’t fit with the décor in a back room where few see it. Public repudiation or destruction of a gift is something else altogether. If you reject a thoughtful gift that someone went to a lot of trouble to get and give, or you destroy it, or you melt it down and make it into something else, then you are sending a message.

That message is that I reject what you gave me, I reject you, and I don’t think the effort you put into this or what it stands for is worthwhile, so much so that I want to make sure the world knows it. Giving a gift back that is no longer usable or that will be difficult to keep or relocating controversial statues, or giving them back to the organizations that gave them for display is preferable to destroying them, but even that smacks of public disfavor, something that isn’t ethically signaled by favoring one group over another.

It makes me think of a twice divorced friend who took her engagement ring and had the diamonds (it had three, one large, two smaller) reset into a necklace and earrings. In effect she was publicly showing her ex- she was done with him, so what he gave her was being repurposed into an object that had no connection to him at all.  It’s definitely NOT like my dad taking Mom’s rather plain engagement ring and resetting it with the diamond that had belonged to her mother (she had died) and one that had been in a rather gaudy pinky ring he’d been given (the giver was long dead) for their 30th anniversary.

The ethics principle here is that gifts should not be weaponized to hurt the givers.

On a slightly lighter note,  none of this applies if someone has given you a joke gift (i.e. giving the female intern a sweater two sizes too small and pressing her to try it on) or intentionally offensive gift (i.e. giving someone who collects something you think is stupid, like a garbage can and saying “it’s a place to put all that stuff you collect.”). In that case you’re well within your rights to say “no thanks, I won’t play the “let’s embarrass me and call it a gift” game.”

It’s also not ethical to weaponize gift-giving to hurt or embarrass the recipient. So, as we move toward the holidays, think twice before you give. Don’t give someone who’s put on weight a gym membership (unless asked for), don’t give a relative you think is too gruff a Dale Carnegie book, don’t give books of the opposite political persuasion to the recipient, and, if you are about to leave for a celebration and realize you forgot to get a gift for someone, don’t, I repeat DON’T, just grab some unused something from your dusty top shelf or guest room so you don’t show up empty-handed (everyone can see what you did).

I trust you’ve also taught your kids ethically about presents so they don’t, as my cousin’s kids did one year, count guests, then count boxes, and loudly say they were a few boxes short, and openly wonder who didn’t come through for them.  Or, as I have to admit some of my generation did, rate the gifts we received and comment on how cool or how lame they were…before the guests had left.

14 thoughts on “Museum Ethics And Gift Ethics: The Robert E. Lee Statue

  1. I have to add one other thing that I didn’t. The idea of beating swords into plowshares is idealistic nonsense, pulled from the Book of Isaiah’s passages of magical thinking about the future. The very idea is actually kind of silly now, although it might not have sounded as silly in the bronze and iron ages, when the metal used in farming tools and weapons wasn’t really all that different. As you start getting into the time of steel forging, the metal for one is very different than the other. I have a feeling this was probably authored before forging, since it references beating and for quite a while the only way to work with iron was by beating or hammering it since ancient furnaces were not hot enough to really melt it. The fact is that the type and amount of metal used in a weapon versus a farming tool is often very different and the one cannot be transformed into the other.
    It also smacks of the idea that somehow farming is a nobler calling than fighting, and that pacifistic behavior is somehow more moral than otherwise. History tells us that’s not the case. The fact is that any nation that beats its swords into plowshares and its spears into pruning hooks will find itself plowing and pruning for the nations that did not. It is unethical to push an idea that can never be, and that is actually dangerous if put into practice.

    What’s proposed here isn’t exactly the same, since it is trading artwork for artwork. However, it is publicly picking winners and losers in artistic endeavors and history. It’s also setting a bad precedent, because you know this isn’t going to be the first statue that meets this fate. You also know there’s going to be a fair amount of strutting when the statue is melted down and when the new artwork is unveiled. You can bet your bookshelf that when the new artwork is unveiled there will be bold signage that will explain the new artwork’s provenance and talk about how much more moral and virtuous this new piece of art is and how benighted, stupid, and bigoted the people who put up the first work of art were.

    The idea is to drive a wedge between past and present, and make the current generation think that it is somehow so much better than all that came before that whatever came before has nothing to offer, and the stories of those who came before are really not worth listening to. Let me ask you this: do those of you who defend either the historic significance of the Confederate figures or the principal that public art should not be destroyed think it is fair that you be tarred as racists by 20somethings who have barely taken a history course? Probably not, it’s insulting, disrespectful, and almost Maoist. I, who defend my Italian heritage and my people’s story, sure as hell don’t want Chad Smith, whose great grandmother, who he only knows from grainy photographs and a few plaster statues that he thinks are hopelessly passe, came from somewhere in Italy that he does not know and does not care about, telling me that I’m an old man clinging to old and evil and racist traditions, and that this world is going to be a better place when guys like me and guys like Jack, who’s just barely a generation ahead of me, aren’t in it anymore, and our headstones are up against the fence with vegetation encroaching on them or our urns with our ashes lie in some cabinet in a mass mausoleum where no one ever visits.

    • A bit of technical housekeeping, if I may, Steve-O.
      Forging is the mechanical working of hot (but not molten), malleable metal into shape. Casting is when metal is melted and shaped by pouring into a mold. Many items, including structural steel beams & etc., are produced by both processes in sequence (casting, forging). An old blade could be reforged into a new one, although with very limited ability to affect its chemistry. Ancients did have crude furnaces with the ability to produce metal from ore. That’s how they first got the bronze (lower melting point), and then iron, from which to forge their tools.

        • Thanks. Unfortunately, the scientific side of things I’m kinda weak on. However, I do remember, from a book on the history of armor that I read waaaay back when, that at least three ancient cultures, the Sumerians, Hittites, and Egyptians, relied mostly on copper and bronze, because iron, due to the relatively low temperatures they could produce in their furnaces, was almost prohibitively hammer-intensive. The Assyrians were the first to use iron for warfare. But, they were also one of the cruelest of the ancient empires, so when they lost their technological edge, they were pretty much doomed.

          • The Egyptians were amazing in a number of respects. They developed some fairly sophisticated metallurgy, for one. Who knows how technological advances might have developed if they had been able to hold things together and benefitted from some advantages they didn’t have, like better access to raw materials (they were highly dependent on imports, including metal ores).

            It’s a place you should add to your bucket list; it’s unique, and much safer than many people imagine…especially for western tourists.

            • Actually the Egyptians were fairly weak before the Fifteenth Dynasty, also called the Hyksos, which were once thought of as foreign invaders, but that’s apparently changed. Before that they had not much of a military beyond the Pharaoh’s bodyguard and the guards who protected miners going to and from the mines. Their weapons were copper-headed spears and axes (tin for bronze was scarce), stone-headed maces, and weak wooden bows. After the Hyksos their weapons improved dramatically. Unfortunately their war with the Hittite Empire ended by destroying them both, and almost allowing the Assyrians to break out and become dominant (the Syrians were still strong and threw them back).

              Eh, maybe. I’m sure the museums in Cairo are great, and the opera house is legendary (although it’s the second, the first burned down in 1971), but I’ve heard bad things about access to the pyramids or even getting a good view. The Middle East may be one area of the world I think I am content to see on my TV set.

    • In defense of that Isaiah passage, it’s not a commandment to adopt pacifism, but a prophecy. It’s looking forward to the day where no one is around to start wars in the first place, thus pacifism will finally be viable.

    • It is the people in power that continually capitulate to these loudmouth punks, who have not created, built, or really done anything, that require shaming.
      Steve-O would be a fabulous regular guest on Tucker Carlson’s show.

  2. I remember when the iconoclasts said that these statues belonged in a museum.

    I am not surprised if this is exactly what they had in mind.

    -Jut

    • Some of them, like Decolonize This Place, will not accept any fate for any of these statues except destruction and reforging into anti-racist art. Hubris, anyone?

  3. Nothing brings the races together like putting one racist group in charge of destroying the statue of an important historic figure that many in another group still consider an honorable man for his time. Such is the way of the American left.

    At best, it will likely be turned into some trite, forgettable bit of modernist junk (that will be highly praised, nonetheless… perhaps they can commission Hunter Biden). At worst it will be another thumb in the eye to decent people; e.g.: another Floyd statue, as Steve-O notes.

    If they go the first route, perhaps they could re-cast the bronze in the form of a giant “poo” emoji, as a metaphor for the criminality and dysfunction that plagues too much of the black community. That could still count as a tribute to St. George.

  4. On other fora, some have commented that the ironic (or hypocritical) fact that the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, Jefferson being an irredeemable owner of ‘enslaved persons’, is assuming possession of the item under discussion.
    Alternatively, if they didn’t have double standards, they wouldn’t have any.

  5. Y’know… We were told the history of the southern confederate statues, that they were cheaply made, erected quickly, honoring people who sometimes explicitly did not deserve honor specifically for the purpose of giving an implicit middle-finger to rights activists in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, decades after the war was over. You hear that and you say…. “Y’know, maybe those don’t belong in the public square. Maybe they should be removed. Maybe some of them belong in museums. There are only so many public squares after all, maybe we need to make room every now and again for some new role models”

    And I still don’t think that’s unreasonable. History is important, but so it the present, and so is the future. A society that doesn’t learn from its’ past is doomed to repeat it, but a society that never looks forward doesn’t grow.

    The problem is that they didn’t stop at reasonable points. Now we’re talking about removing statues of the founding fathers, legitimately colossal men for their era, and putting up statues of felons like George Floyd, who’s most worthy accomplishment was dying. And melting down statues for material in something akin to that… It’s just gross. “Orwellian” is an overused meme generally, so I try to avoid it, but this is genuinely Orwellian. It’s the kind of history-erasing, our-turn-to-eat, bullshit that you’d expect out of ISIS. “When history isn’t convenient, there’s always trinitrotoluene”, right?

    • It isn’t unreasonable. However, reasonable discussions and reasonable compromises require reasonable people on both sides. When you have one side making demands and the other side saying come back when you’re not going to try to bully, you can’t have reasonable discussions or compromises.

      Oh, and let me remind you, ISIS didn’t invent this approach. They’re just one of its latest practitioners. The Muslims have been destroying the history of places they conquer since they began the first wars of conquest in the 600s. It didn’t start with them either – in the last Persian War the Zoroastrian Persians stole the True Cross, the Holy Lance, and the Holy Sponge from Jerusalem together with other relics, and later the Byzantines retaliated by sacking their holy site at Adur Gushnap, putting out the holy fire, knocking down the temple, and deliberately fouling the sacred lake with dead bodies. Before that the Hebrews and other Semites were destroying one another’s shrines when there was conquest. It’s a practice apparently we just haven’t moved past.

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