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When a Government Falls, its Statues Aren’t Spared : Culture: Citizens take out their frustrations with former leaders on their statues. But is this an attack against civilization?

<i> Christopher Knight is art critic for The Times</i>

If, through some dark and unforeseen trauma in the future, the United States were to undergo violent revolution or internal collapse, would the obelisk erected in honor of George Washington in the nation’s capital be toppled by the new regime, shortly after the President’s name was stripped from the eponymous city?

Would the Statue of Liberty be dismantled from her graceful pedestal in New York Harbor? Would dynamite be planted beneath the chins of the four stone presidents who, for half a century, have gazed majestically toward eternity from high on Mt. Rushmore?

More than likely, yes. Or, at least, some variation on these disorienting examples would occur. History shows that whenever a political state undergoes dramatic change, so does the art it sponsored and erected. Old pieties are swept away--and with them the paintings and, more often, monumental sculptures through which those pieties have been given public form.

This is exactly what has been happening for the past several months in Eastern Europe and in the remnants of the Soviet Union--as cast and carved monuments to Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and assorted communist heroes, functionaries and scoundrels have been dismantled and removed from view. Neither isolated nor an aberration, the reshuffling has been taking place in cities ranging from Leningrad--er, make that St. Petersburg--to Bucharest and beyond.

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As press and television pictures have attested, the government-ordered removal of works of art from prominent public places is always startling. It doesn’t matter what the art’s subject might be, or whether its history has been proud or inglorious. In the West, the mere sight of a crane lifting a figure down off its pedestal is creepy, because it violates our ideas about the place of such art in contemporary life.

The basic function of any monument is to remind--perpetually recalling to view prevailing values and beliefs that are always teetering on the brink of disappearance, whether through willfulness or neglect. Its removal is disturbing because we like to think our monuments are permanent. Permanence is the reason we go to the trouble and expense of erecting them. If Soviet monuments are so vulnerable--a thought virtually unthinkable not so long ago--then what of our own?

Of course, in the deeper recesses of our minds we know nothing is permanent. (The critic Gary Indiana once noted that, in fugitive matters of culture and aesthetics, “permanent” should only be used as a synonym for hairdo.) The statues of Marx and Lenin--or those of Athena, Caesar, Quetzalcoatl, Louis XIV or Ben Franklin erected by a variety of civilizations in the West--are concrete expressions of their society’s hope that what it holds most dear will never die. Veiled symbols of collective wishful thinking, monuments are a hedge against mortality.

Sculptures erected to forestall the death of an idea are perishable when that idea withers and turns to dust. Revolution or collapse signals that the death has taken place--either violently or through “natural” causes. Immediately, the symbolic sculpture becomes unseemly, for a once-living monument has been transformed into a sallow corpse.

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The removal of officially sanctioned art is not always as simple as it might seem. For one thing, cases of mistaken identity can occur. French revolutionaries pulled down several kingly statues from the facade of Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral, firm in their belief that ancestors of the hated French monarchy might be beyond the reach of the guillotine, but their sculptural effigies could at least be demolished. Alas, the sculptures were ecclesiastical depictions of ancient Hebrew kings, not medieval kings of France.

Sometimes, the aggrieved public stands up and says a surprising “no.” Last month in Berlin, workers began to dismantle a 60-foot statue of Vladimir I. Lenin, whose presence in the city’s eastern district had caused heated controversy. In the wake of German unification, city officials sought to remove the stone-block sculpture, which had presided over its neighborhood for 21 years. Outraged locals took to the streets to demonstrate, collected 1,000 signatures on a petition to save the monument and finally filed suit against the city to block its removal.

Lenin, some demonstrators reportedly argued, had been pivotal to the success of Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s reform movement, which had ended their tenure as citizens of a Soviet satellite and made reunification of their bifurcated city possible. In his call for sweeping structural changes, Gorbachev held up Lenin as a symbol of the purer dream that Josef Stalin and the post-Stalin era had brought to ruin. Without Lenin, whose symbolic value was embodied in the monumental sculpture, their fate might have been in grievous doubt.

Dramatically recontextualized in this way, the sculpture was claimed to harbor a lingering spark of life. But the argument didn’t wash with the German court, which ordered the statue taken down and relegated to the netherworld of storage.

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If such a sculpture “dies,” doesn’t this mean it should receive a proper burial? Yes and no. Yes, because monuments to ideas once believed to have vitality or power are typically found in prominent locations--and nobody wants to see rotting corpses held aloft. Unmistakable signs of fallen virtue are bad for morale.

And, no, because we bury our history at our peril. The difference between a statue of Lenin standing in an Eastern European square and that same statue being lowered from its pedestal by a crane is the difference between faith and history. Desecration--literally, the taking away of sacredness from symbols--is a culturally sobering act. That’s why it always draws a crowd.

The subconscious shudder that greets the removal of works of art is far more basic than any high-flown argument over aesthetic quality. Few would maintain that Socialist Realist statues, now disappearing from former communist nations faster than the rain forest is disappearing from Brazil, are an endangered species. Nor are there many champions ready to proclaim Nikolai M. Tomsky, the Russian sculptor who carved that Lenin for the Berlin neighborhood, a major artist.

Socialist Realism is a style that, contrary to its name, idealizes a range of cultural pieties sanctified by state authority. As such, it contradicts the great thrust of modern art in the 20th Century, which hallows individual thought and feeling, and of postmodern art, which does mean to identify the individual as a socially constructed being--albeit one not constructed from the top down, as state art decrees, but from the bottom up.

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Still, there’s something inherently barbaric about destroying any work of art. As containers for belief, art is inherently unstable. When sculptures topple, as they are bound to do, they should be uprighted--not so the same, spilled beliefs can be stuffed back inside, but so we can examine their shape and contour for illuminating signs of what they once held.

After all, modern culture is also museum culture. As places where we proudly display remnants of a way of life that has forever vanished, museums are the mausoleums where monuments to Lenin, Stalin and the rest finally belong.


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