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The Case of The Magical Statues

So they have pulled down a statue in the United States of America. Benjamin Harris asks whether we should be worried about a destruction of a work of art: is it vandalism or iconoclasm? These are good things to think about, but let me begin by asking why weren’t we having these discussions fifteen years ago when statues of Saddam Hussein were being pulled down in Iraq, or ten years before that when statues of Lenin were being removed all over Eastern Europe? Is it because ‘we’ associated ourselves with the ‘winning side’, or that we identified these as tyrants whose images therefore deserved to be obliterated?

Let me park that question while we consider the broader matter of what those statues, and the United States examples represent. Are they, in fact, art?

In his book The Principles of Art R G Collingwood comes up with three categories to hold what is commonly referred to as art (this is after separating works of art from works of craft). Aside from art proper (which I have touched on here and here), there are two categories that fail to meet his criteria for art.

First, there is amusement art, which is as the name suggests is produced primarily for amusement. A key characteristic of amusement art is that it is designed to raise and then dissipate emotions during its consumption, leaving the audience unchanged at the end of the experience. The commonest examples of amusement art when I was growing up were Mills and Boon romances, which were read and almost immediately forgotten as the reader moved on to the next one: amusement art is frequently formulaic. If you want a case study of the workings of amusement art in Hollywood watch Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, and more generally, The Truman Show.

Collingwood’s second category is magic: he uses the word in the sense familiar to anthropologists rather than that of Dungeons and Dragons. Magic encompasses activities, rituals and products that are designed to evoke a specific emotional response which is carried forward into everyday life. It is important to note that magic is not a pejorative term but a functional one: there will be many occasions – including public worship – where generating certain emotions is appropriate.

What sort of things does Collingwood put in the category of magic?

 I refer to such things as the prose of the pulpit, the verse of hymns, the instrumental music of the military band and the dance band, the decoration of drawing rooms, and so forth … Equally obvious, or hardly less so, is the case of patriotic art, whether the patriotism be national or civic or attached to a party or class or any other corporate body: the patriotic poem, the school song, the portraits of worthies or statues of statesmen, the war memorial, the pictures or plays recalling historic events, military music, and all the innumerable forms of pageantry, procession, and ceremonial whose purpose is to stimulate loyalty towards country or city or party or class or family or any other social or political unit. (The Principles of Art, pp72-3.)

This is the category to which statues of Lenin, Saddam Hussein and Confederate generals belong. It also contains L’Arc de Triomphe, statues of Churchill (with or without a grass mohican), and statues of Union generals. They are not art, they are magic. We may therefore ask what emotions are these statues designed to evoke?

For the statues of the Confederate generals we may say they were, at best, designed to stimulate loyalty towards the defeated Confederacy and the slave society it sought to protect. There is also the flip side: to demonstrate to former slaves and their descendants that despite its military defeat the spirit and power of that slave society continues. (For an analysis of the timing of the erection of the statues see here).

To my mind, removal of those statues (and the Lenins and Saddams I mentioned at the start of this post) is not about the destruction of works of art, but about the removal of works of magic by people who no longer wish to evoke the patriotic (and fearful) emotions intended by the those who erected them.

The deeper question about the destruction of works of art (which hopefully will look at the Chapman brothers defacing Goya prints, Robert Rauschenberg erasing a William de Kooning drawing and maybe Lady Clementine Churchill’s destruction of Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Winston) will have to wait for another time.

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