Posted inArtifacts, Arts+Movies

The Politics of Public Art

The next time someone tells you that art is something extra, something to be added to the fundamentals of life, like jobs and education, consider this: the impending fight over the statue of former governor, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman.

John Monk, a columnist for The State newspaper, characterized the politician last week as “one of the leading white supremacists of his time who worked for years to deny African-Americans their rights. As S.C. governor, he advocated lynching black people. Later, he helped usher in the state’s Jim Crow era.”

Monk’s piece ran the same day that Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, introduced a resolution to remove the huge, imposing statue of Tillman from the grounds of the State House. Evidently, the resolution is unlikely to gain traction, according to The State.

Lawmakers are already aiming for compromise.

Instead of tearing it down, some are proposing that a plaque be affixed to the statue that illustrates Tillman’s racist legacy.

There is a precedent for such alterations to public art. South Carolina changed the statue memorializing the late Strom Thurmond, a former Dixiecrat and segregationist. It now lists Strom’s daughter born of a black woman with his four white children.

Two things to remember here. One is that Rutherford’s effort is part of a larger nationwide push for greater accuracy of the African American historical record as it is represented in the form of public art. The push intensifies, naturally, this time of the year when thoughts turn to Martin Luther King Jr. and his heroic battle for civil rights.

The other thing to keep in mind is this: Art matters even when we don’t think of the thing in question (i.e., Tillman’s statue) as art.

Art is a reflection of society, of a culture’s values. It tells us who we are and who we have been. It’s no surprise to see people getting upset by an homage to Tillman, a man who embodied white supremacy and white violence toward black Americans. Statues evoke a sense of permanence, but most thinking people would likely want to leave Tillman in the past.

We’ll see if anything happens. As of this writing (Jan. 21), a poll on The State‘s website indicated that 29 percent of voters said remove the statue while 27 percent said put a plaque on it. But the majority, 45 percent, said to leave the statue alone.

I guess some things don’t change at all.

Posted inArts+Movies, Unscripted

The politics of public art

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The next time someone tells you art is something extra, something to be added to the fundamentals of life, like jobs and education, point this out: the impending fight over the likeness of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman at the State House in Columbia.

John Monk, a columnist for The State, characterized the politician today as “one of the leading white supremacists of his time who worked for years to deny African-Americans their rights. As S.C. governor, he advocated lynching black people. Later, he helped usher in the state’s Jim Crow era.”

Monk’s piece ran the same day that Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, introduced a resolution to remove a huge statue of Tillman from the grounds of the State House. Evidently, the resolution is unlikely to gain traction, according to The State newspaper.

Lawmakers are already aiming for compromise.

Instead of tearing it down, some are proposing that a plaque be affixed to the statue that illustrates Tillman’s racist legacy.

South Carolina has already changed the statue memorializing the late Strom Thurman, a former Dixiecrat and segregationist. It now lists Strom’s daughter born of a black woman among his four other white children.

Two things to remember here: One is that Rutherford’s effort is part of a larger nationwide push for greater accuracy in the historic record as African American history is represented the form of public art. The push intensifies, naturally, this time of the year when thoughts turn to Martin Luther King Jr. and his heroic push for civil rights.

The other thing to keep in mind is that art matters even when we don’t think of the thing in question (i.e., a statue of Tillman) as art. Art is a reflection of society, of a literate culture’s values. It tells us who we are and who we have been. It’s no surprise to see people getting upset by an homage to Tillman, a man who embodied white supremacy and white violence toward black Americans. Statues evoke a sense of permanence, but most thinking people would likely want to leave Tillman in the past.

We’ll see if anything happens. As of this writing (Jan. 17), an online poll on The State‘s website indicates 50 percent of voters wanted change: either remove the statue or put a plaque on it. But the other half said that nothing should change.

(image above courtesy of The State)