Iconoclasm and the Suburbs

I’ve been watching with rapt attention the destruction of various statues in the US (and abroad) as a part of the larger protest against racism in the wake of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis. I went to college in Richmond, Virginia, my father grew up in Richmond and my parents were married at St. John’s on Stuart Circle where my grandmother played the organ and my uncle sang in the choir, and I remember even as a kid being fascinated by the monuments along Monument Avenue. 

Since my days in Richmond, I’ve thought a bit about the destruction of statues in antiquity. In fact, we included an article by Troels Myrup Kristensen in the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology primarily because of Myrup Kristensen’s interest in the fate of pagan statues in Late Antiquity. Myrup Kristensen shows the various acts of iconoclasm directed toward pagan statues was part of the Christian tradition from as early as the 2nd century AD. Béatrice Caseu, for example, has shown that communities sometimes intentionally buried statues of both pagan gods and even emperors. There is ample evidence for the manipulation and mutilation of sculpture in the Late Roman period that reflects efforts to limit the power tied to the images of non-Christian deities, to convert them to Christianity, or to make them more palatable for Christian use. Finally, some of my favorite buildings in Greece and Cyprus are churches that either survived Byzantine iconoclasm (like the Panagia tis Angeloktistis at Kiti or Os. David in Thessaloniki) or show the signs of the process (especially Ay. Sophia in Thessaloniki). 

As a 21st century observer, then, I’ve been excited to follow examples of iconoclasm as it plays out weekly at sites across the US and recognize it not as a kind of historical aberration, but as part of a long tradition of symbolic violence directed at statues and monuments associated with despised, rejected, or dangerous ideas, groups, and history. Indeed, I’d argue that the ritualized destruction of the statues will likely leave a much greater mark in the historical and archaeological record than the far more common and less controversial removal or modification of monuments as part of the changing fashion and requirements in the urban landscape. Just as the mutilated examples of Late Roman statues and the spectral traces of Byzantine iconoclasm allow us to return to those ancient situations, so the images of the decorated and defaced statue of Lee in Richmond, Virginia will allow people to return to the events of 2020 and consider both the methods and motivations as well as the results of these protests. What’s happening to statues over the last few months is a kind of damnatio memoriae that intentionally leaves traces on the monument or on the landscape making the act of removing, defacing, or repurposing the statue visible as a reminder of the moment and the movement. To my mind, if preserved properly, the fate of the statues on Monument Avenue and elsewhere could preserve a genuinely democratic and popular moment in the carefully curated landscape of American urbanism.  

Over the last few months, I’ve also started to think more carefully and systematically about the changes in contemporary settlement and urbanism that have occurred since World War II. Among the most dramatic changes is the growth of suburbs and the changing demography and organization of American cities which endured various forms of “White Flight,” efforts at urban renewal, and the significant changes the urban landscape as it became dissected by interstate highways and reconfigured to accommodate the steep increase in vehicle traffic and commuters. The social, political, and economic landscape of cities also changed over this time with the gap between the rich and poor in many cities widening, the decline in urban manufacturing jobs and small businesses, and the uneven benefits and pressures experienced through 21st-century gentrification and renewal efforts inspired by the “new urbanism.” As a result many monuments erected in the early 20th century context stand in significantly different contexts in the 21st century as the communities who live with these statues seek to redefine their identities in response to new challenges and expectations. While each city is different, it is clear the 21st-century Richmond residents felt sufficiently empowered to challenge the relevance of white, male, Confederate, Civil War veterans as acceptable representatives of their identity.  

More importantly to me, however, is the growth of suburbs in second half of the 20th century. Few suburbs featured the kinds of public spaces where figural monuments would be appropriate. The common public areas in the suburbs were parks and green spaces designed to evoke more bucolic settings or as spaces organized around sports such as baseball, soccer, or golf. Developers arranged roads in suburban areas not as potential settings for monumental displays, but as efficient connectors linking home with work, shopping, worship, and play. Indeed, if any place in the suburbs provided a kind of public space as existed in 19th and early-20th century cities, it might be the suburban shopping mall where the engagement with consumer culture shaped identities rather than heroic statues and monuments. Of course, houses of worship, and churches in particular, also provided spaces for public gathering, but modernist, suburban churches tend to be rather aniconic as well. Schools also stand as public spaces in the suburbs, but like suburban churches, adaptable, functional architecture took priority over more rigid and monumental urban spaces. Moreover, efforts to preserve a sense of common scale mitigated against overt monumentality even in large buildings and certainly offered little space for the kind of figural monuments that have been the target of iconoclastic ire in recent years. As a result, the daily experience of middle and upper class white suburban dwellers was distinctly devoid of figural monuments and monumentality in general outside the odd shopping mall, office park, or church. 

Of course, folks living in suburbs knew about figural monuments. They remained visible in urban areas, but rather than being part of everyday life, they became symbols of urban and historical otherness. They no longer represented the kind of ongoing negotiation of a shared identity and history. The city and its monuments were not a lived space, but a kind of museum. In fact, for most people, the idea of erecting a figural statue to a prominent pubic figure today seems absurd and more the domain of tin-pot dictators than civic minded individuals or groups.

Acknowledging this, many, but not all, of the most prominent new monuments on the National Mall, for example, eschew figural depictions all together. The World War II memorial, for example, uses its imposing size to communicate the scale of events. The more subtle Vietnam War memorial does the opposite by reducing the scale of monument to something more accessible to visitors, perhaps evoking the suburban, everyday, as a way both to stand out in the larger-than-life surroundings of the National Mall and to communicate the cost of the war on a more human scale. Even monuments to individuals, such as the FDR Memorial, which does feature figural depictions of Franklin Roosevelt, uses life-size scale to emphasize the President’s humanity. In short, the kind of monumental figural depictions that have so often have attracted the attention of protestors, activists, and iconoclasts, are perhaps less popular because so many of us live within a de-monumentalized modern world. In fact, these monuments stand outside of our conceptual universe even at times when we seek to memorialize prominent events and civic leaders. 

This is consistent, of course, with a wider view of history popular since the mid-20th century which has questioned the singular role of great individual in history and, instead, argued that events more often represent the confluence of social forces, economic systems, institutions, and various “structures” such as race, gender, class, and ethnicity. By de-emphasizing the heroic character of individuals in the past, we both succeed in making past individuals more human (as the Vietnam Memorial reflects in highly affective ways) and in understanding the great power of common attitudes, beliefs, and situations which compel us to act as individuals with often overwhelming force (as the massive scale of the World War II memorial suggests). Of course, this way of seeing the past is not separate from a view of the present that privileges the impersonal character of modern architecture, for example, that reflects flexibility, efficiency, and convenience as a response to larger social forces.

There are, of course, exceptions to rather monument-less experience of modern life. For example, the recent trend toward erecting statues of sports figures in the area around urban sports arenas marks these spaces serve to leverage the impact of statues as a way to connect visitors to their favorite teams. If statues in urban areas initially served to create a sense of shared experience, history, and identity with the viewer, the use of figural statues outside sports venues served to stir a sense of identification with the team. The team, of course, is a privately owned venture which depends on ticket paying attendees, public support for facilities, and, revenue from fans buying clothes and other personal objects as ways to demonstrate their loyalty. 

College and universities likewise occasionally erect figural statues, but universities often use anachronistic rituals, traditions, architectural forms, and landscapes to communicate a sense of gravity, persistence, and significance. Of course, like sports teams, many of these traditions, rituals, and monuments have as much to do with creating a special sense of attachment among students and alumni that warrants ever rising tuition costs and encourages continued support of the institution’s mission. Even public universities and colleges are increasingly becoming private ventures where appeals to potential donors and tuition payers plays a major role in how an institution represents its past.

Outside these exceptions, then, the post-war suburban world which has done so much to shape our politics, economy, and social life, is largely devoid of monumental, figural monuments. In fact, most of suburban life is spent in an endless series of historically indistinct, non-places consisting of gently contoured streets with rustic names, endlessly-modified and reconfigured modernist churches and schools, convenient and formless shopping centers surrounded by parking, and glass-walled offices and cubicles.

In this context, the response of many suburban dwellers to the attacks on largely urban monuments makes a kind of sense. If “white guilt” plays an important role in shaping race relations in the US, I would gently suggest that the negative response to the destruction of monumental statues in the US also reflects a kind of guilt. This guilt recognizes that with the emergence of modern suburbs, white suburban dwellers have lost the ability to assert a sense of the public past in their everyday life. This is not to suggest that the statues on Richmond’s Monument Avenue represent a view of the past that all members of the Richmond community embraced in the past or celebrate today. They obviously never did and do not now. They do reflect, however, the past efforts of a certain group of citizens to produce a sense of common heritage that reinforced their own right to speak for the community. Many Richmond residents and citizens, both then and now, find these monuments deeply offensive.

In this context, the monumental landscape of the first half of the 20th century takes on particular significance. White suburb-dwellers recognize that they have not been good stewards of their view of history. Between trends within the discipline that look beyond the influence of “great men” to larger social forces and the changing character of American society, the work to assert the importance of great white individuals ceased at the very moment when suburbs began to rapidly sprout around major urban areas. Punitive cuts to education and especially the humanities, ambivalence or even hostility toward cultural institutions, and the rise of a kind of fragmented and banal modernity speak to new forms of public and private life that privilege efficiency and economic advancement in a competitive market. 

The anxiety that the removal of these monuments will result in the loss of history, which is almost certainly not the case, reflects the fears and guilt of two generations of largely white Americans who found a common experience in convenience, consumerism, and efficiency which allowed them to avoid the difficult task of negotiating, asserting, or memorializing a public view of the past. They viewed the urban monuments from the first half of the 20th century as adequate and invested their energies in celebrating the past of sports teams, universities and colleges, and private institutions.

Fortunately, others have stepped up and taken on the task of redefining public space, and the results have been spectacular. 

One Comment

  1. Melissa Morison June 24, 2020 at 12:23 pm

    This was an especially interesting post; I was thinking some of those same things about damnatio memoriae.
    I also was reminded again of local urban projects: https://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/2013/07/grand_rapids_community_legends.html , and also https://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/2010/10/grand_rapids_late_us_sen_arthu.html , https://www.woodtv.com/news/grand-rapids/the-reason-rosa-parks-stands-in-downtown-grand-rapids/ ,resonates with your comments about issues of community identity. “Community Legends” casts a donor-specific net…..

    The *placement* of these public images relative to each other, and relative to civic buildings and key foot traffic intersections, is a little interesting. Arthur Vanderberg and Rosa Parks are not far from each other, but have their backs to each other rather noticeably….

    I tend to build intro. Classical Archaeology assignments around the groupings of statues, scaffolding complexity of response over the course of a semester.


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