A sculpture or a statue, unlike a painting which can be mounted ‘on the wall over there’, or ‘in the corridor behind that door there’, necessarily occupies space. To borrow from The New Yorker, “it intrudes on an already crowded world”. A statue we dislike is much harder to ignore than a painting we don’t like. In occupying the same three dimensional plane that we do, it lends itself to criticism.
Sometimes, I think that this is all there is to the RhodesMustFall controversy. Had the honouring ‘art’ (let us, for now, call it art) been a painting, would there be such a furore surrounding it? Is it because the statue is so obviously intruding on space that the arguments have reached the controversy it has?
There is of course, more to it than that. The sculpture of Rhodes has intruded on other discourses. It now notably occupies the debate over free speech and Britain’s imperial past.
The labelling of the statue as ‘art’ is misleading. If we don’t think of the statue as a work of art, we can think of it as more of a static entity. It stands not for a portal into multiple interpretations but as a straightforward representative placeholder. For now, let us think of the statue as nothing more than a statue depicting a man who was, for better or worse, a part of Britain’s, and Oxford’s history. This is what a lot of the arguments over censorship revolve around; our own Politics Editor made a strong argument on this site.
This raises the question, if it’s not a work of art, what is the statue’s purpose? What does it set out to achieve? Surely the process of having a person’s features cast and elevated onto a plinth is often a sign of honour? In this particular case, I don’t think many people (before or after the controversy) would question this interpretation. The statue occupies a space in order to honour the man on the plinth. This seems fairly obvious.
This is where I think the argument about censorship falls flat. The issue is not that the Rhodes statue remembers our imperial past. What is at stake here is the question of what we should and shouldn’t honour. The issue is that it acknowledges a man who contributed to colonising Africa and, rather than seeing that as an unfortunate part of a history, celebrates it.
Again, is this just a question of form? But, then again, the medium is the message.
Of course, all representations are’t merely static placeholders but always political. The easiest, most accessible entry into this idea is Adichie’s The Danger of the Single Story Ted talk. Anyone who is interested in this – whether they agree or disagree – should watch it.
The Rhodes statue is a single story. His plinth stands unopposed by the people he undermined, the communities he savaged in the name of imperialism. That is not an acknowledgement of the past, but a repetition.