Rebel Plinths

A proposal for Confederate statues: bring them down to street level.

You wouldn’t get a blog post about plinths anywhere else, would you?

Hear me out. Memorial statuary normally consists of (a) a statue and (b) a plinth. The plinth raises the statue above street level, making it more visible. It also triggers instinctive associations of height with power, dignity and respect. It works even better if you throw in a horse, as with Lee at Charlottesville and Peter the Great in St. Petersburg.

The problem with the Confederate memorials is that they make a racist statement that the Confederate rebellion should not just be remembered, but remembered with respect and admiration. The statement depends as much on the plinth as the statue itself.

So here is a suggestion for dealing with the statues of Confederate soldiers, mass-produced in Northern foundries, that dot hundreds of public spaces in the old Confederacy:

Bring them down to street level.

In the street, they become bronze fellow-citizens, and the gullibility and racism of the men they represent can become as much a part of the civic conversation as their bravery and sacrifice. If they are unpopular, they will be defaced. If they become objects of ridicule, they will sprout frat ties, silly hats and dildos. Them’s the breaks. Let’s see how it works out.

That leaves an empty plinth or two. Don’t spend a fortune taking them away. There’s an empty one in Trafalgar Square in London: it is used for temporary exhibition. Or you can hold a competition for a statue of something or somebody that everybody wants to honour. The Northern foundries will retool to supply as many versions of Martin Luther King as the South commissions.

Footnote for art wonks

There is one striking exception to the plinth norm. When Auguste Rodin cast the famous group of the Burghers of Calais, he lost a battle with the city fathers to install them at ground level. What Rodin wanted was to replace the usual historical distancing from a tragic and violent event with immediacy, shock and empathy. He was rightly confident that the quality of his work would still make the sculpture effective. There is little risk that the mediocre Confederate statuary will compensate in the same way for being brought down to earth. The Burghers have now been brought back down, and stand on a compromise mini-plinth.


Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

16 thoughts on “Rebel Plinths”

    1. It was 28 years ago I first saw that set at Stanford and I might be misremembering but ISTR walking on gravel substrate amongst them on the S side(?) of the museum, which a few months later got knocked hard by the quake. Also with the enormous doors, it was a tremendously memorable experience, as we were young and inexperienced. Big feet and hands. We were the only people there on a beautiful day. From that image they seemed to have been moved.

      My thoughts wrt James' post are it seems preposterous (to me) that they might be defaced due to their accessibility; I could not imagine feelings other than empathy at the depicted collective plight. Yet I can see James' point: I would enthusiastically non-destructively editorialize a ground level Treason In Defense Of Slavery memorial statue.

      1. The beaten Confederates generally don't look too downtrodden in this style of statuary. Entirely the opposite and badly in need of a penis drawn on each and every forehead.

      2. Thanks for this. You have a good memory. I linked to the smaller collection next to the quad, but there is a larger collection including The Gates of Hell next to the Art Museum. The Loma Prieta quake did serious damage to the museum and it was closed for years but has since re-opened.

    2. Stanford placed the (separately cast) figures far apart, changing Rodin's intended effect. It's a high Romantic work anyway: each figure is depicted as lost in a private world of intense suffering, experienced in different ways. However at Calais the six burghers are huddled together in a tight group. Their fate is collective; they are sacrificing themselves for their city. (You don't often see memorials to self-sacrificial rich guys). I'm not sure if Rodin really achieves the balance of private pain and collective virtue he was aiming for. But the Stanford disassembly removes it completely; it's just six individuals as lone heroes. Very American.

      A more conventional artist would have emphasised the civic virtue, for example by taking the moment after Eustache de St-Pierre has volunteered and five others step forward to join him. Here's David on the oath of the Horatii.

  1. Whenever I see one of the Burghers–just last month in Dallas was the most recent–I always take some time and circle him to look very closely.

    Another work where ground level display makes all the difference is one on the State Capitol grounds here in Little Rock, John Deerings' "Testament", depicting the Little Rock Nine walking from the replica Liberty Bell toward the Capitol. I especially like the photo with this story. You can step into their path with them for a moment, if you like, or just look at them, eye to eye. If you're in town, it's worth going to.

    [JW: I can add the image.


  2. The people who came to Charlottesville to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue were right. It is a tragedy to erase such a big part of our history and heritage. Damn! I wish someone would invent a thingy that had, like, hundreds of pieces of paper with words written on them, that told people about what happened long ago, all fastened together and numbered in sequence. Too bad there are no such things. High time someone invented them.

    1. Real documents, as we all know, come in scrolls, tied with ribbon. This codex nonsense will never take off.

      There is an attractive theory that early Christians, a bunch of déclassé riff-raff, were early adopters of the codex in the 2ns century CE, and may have invented it. Their polemical adversaries, both Greek and Jewish, stuck with the traditional and prestigious scroll. This gave the Christians the edge in locating knock-down quotations, the key technique for all parties. The story was repeated in the Reformation when Calvinist printers in Geneva invented verse numbering.

    2. I used to think the "erasing history" argument was stupid. But then it occurred to me that these places with Confederate monuments have zero monuments to Union heroes. Here in Dallas we have Lee Park, a memorial downtown and a few schools named after Confederate "heroes," but 150 years after the Civil War, not a single monument to Lincoln, Grant or Sherman, to name a few. Is it possible the paucity of statuary and commemoration honoring Union heroes has led to ignorance of exactly who the Confederacy was fighting against? Do Confederate sympathizers sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at ball games without realizing that they are honoring the flag flown by their ancestors' sworn enemies? When they say the Civil War was not about slavery, is that because there are no memorials to Douglass, Truth, Garrison, Turner and Tubman (again, to name but a few)?

      Actually, all feigned ingenuousness aside, everyone knows what the Civil War was about, and they know what the monuments are about. We famously remember the Alamo, yet have no memorials to Santa Anna. We honor WWII vets without putting up statues of Hitler and Rommel to make sure everyone knows what WWII was about. There is no statue of bin Laden at Ground Zero. My great grandfather fought for the Confederacy. If I want to honor him, I'll salute the flag he lived under for all but four years of his life, and the country he and his compatriots were unable to separate from. Were I to choose the flag of treason, I'd be celebrating his treason. No thanks.

  3. I have to admit, I would like very much to see an African American Fearless Child (cf. Wall Street's Fearless Girl) facing down a grounded Confederate general.
    [JW: the image:


  4. At Vox, Samuel Sinyangwe (an AA Southerner) has an essay recalling how he had to go to Barbados to see a memorial to a leader of a slave rebellion, Bussa.

    1. Nobody SFIK has defaced the Rodin Burghers or the street level Famine Memorial in Dublin (h/t to commenter DJ at LGM). Some of the Confederate soldiers would get vandalised, others might find acceptance in the civic conversation.

      1. Those are not made of bronze foil that will crumple at the first blow of a hammer though, are they?

        The point is that the Confederate statues seem to be very shoddily made, if the one in Durham is representative of the genre.

      2. The Famine Memorial and the Rodin Burghers are representing something very different from what the Confederate statues represented when installed and are now perceived to represent. In fact, within the past few hours, several Confederate statues have been vandalized. And this isn't all that new: the "Appomattox" statue (a Confederate soldier facing south with bowed head) in Alexandria is not accessible for ordinary vandalism, since it stands in the middle of a two-way street. Every so often someone would run a car or truck into it–or rather, into the 10-foot plinth on which it stands. The local belief–not, in my understanding, without merit–was that at least some of those instances were intentional political commentary.

        Now that I think of it, if you ignore the shaggy hair and mustache, the fellow has the same look General Kelly had as he was listening to Trump talking about the events in Charlottesville. It is the look of defeat.

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