Friday, August 26, 2022

The limitations of statues

     So I was thinking about Gotthold Ephraim Lessing this morning and wondered what you make of him.
     Are you an admirer? A critic?
     What? You’ve never heard of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing? No! Perhaps his 1748 play will ring a bell: Der Junge Gelehrten, or “The Young Scholar.”
     Still no? How can that be?! There’s a statue of him big as life in Washington Park. For almost a century.
     Point made? Good. Statues are vastly overrated as tributes, or mnemonic devices, or anything other than hunks of bronze that sit neglected in parks providing roosts for pigeons.
     Well, I suppose they’re also something for people to bicker about. Endlessly. With Columbus Day closing in, and Lori Lightfoot’s kick-the-can-down-the-road Chicago Monuments Project bouncing back into view after two years of tumbling forward — in brief: keep the three Columbus statues mothballed and ditch 10 more that reek of white supremacy — I would be in danger of having my pundit card revoked if I didn’t flip my palm toward the air and glibly opine.
     The 73-page report is nuanced. Summarizing it makes it sound more extreme than it actually is. When I first read news stories about about its findings, my takeaway was the commission managed the neat trick of finally making me sympathetic to keeping Columbus by suggesting that the bas-reliefs on the DuSable Bridge should go. Those are gorgeous and if they are a little History as Told By John Wayne, well, nobody said America is a tidy, fair place. The cowboys won, right?
     But the report doesn’t suggest the offending panels simply be jackhammered away for “their allegorical representation of the triumph of Western civilization.” There are landmark considerations and maybe a “powerful, non-physical and possibly periodic, deactivation or disruption of these works” would suffice, which I imagine involves giving $10,000 to a School of the Art Institute student to devise a light show strobing blood red flashes across the bas-reliefs while looped shrieks startle passing tourists.
     Why not? Times change and we change with them. We’ve been battering each other for so long over this literal deadweight from the past, I’m wondering if it isn’t time to try to get a little smarter about it.

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  1. I think Lessing deserves a statue just for the superstition aphorism. I looked him up to check if he had done anything or said anything that would disqualify him for the honor, but found an esthete whose philosophy and plays would no doubt be banned in Florida today. Better than a statue of course would be a movement to give his ideas greater attention and truly make his name a household word. First step: knock down the statue.


  2. I've walked down Cottage Grove past that statue & never even knew it was there! A number of years ago, I walked through that section of Washington park & never saw it.

  3. I'm ambivalent about Columbus, because his story offers much to be ambivalent about. It seems like he was a pretty awful guy, but he did discover "America." (Though even that is debatable, of course.) I can keep those disparate thoughts in mind at the same time with no problem. I liked seeing that statue at the south end of Columbus Drive, but not so much that I'd join a protest to make sure it's put back. I would just note that consistency requires that, what began with removing the statue should be followed by an apology that the World's Columbian Exposition was ever held. Followed by the removal of one of the stars from the Chicago flag. Ultimately followed by every non-Native American relocating to another country / hemisphere. History being what it is, good luck finding a country whose past is not also riddled with deeply uncomfortable aspects.

    To start, though, let's rename Columbus Drive as Lessing Drive and move his statue to a new downtown home! Alas, as he noted: "It’s easier to swoon in pious dreams Than do good actions."

  4. Lessing was, among many other things, a librarian.

  5. Great column. Glad you wrote about because nobody does it better. Also good to see this one in the paper. Can't imagine hanging around a Columbus statue, whatever side you're on, wasting time whining about it. I think they would be better off leaving it and just update the facts so everyone can learn and get it right. Just update the text somewhere so we can read it. If both sides can agree on it which they probably can't. You said it well.


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