Of all the things that might have dominated the headlines of 2020 once a deadly virus had taken hold of the globe, I didn’t think it would be statues. Pulling them down, guarding them, defending their right to exist, criticising new ones and creating laws to protect them. People really love the big ol’ slabs of stone, or really don’t. Like everything else in the current climate, it’s polarised.
While some of the names on the list are admirable (the late, great associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Bader Ginsberg, for one), I can’t help feeling that commissioning 250 statues on your last day in office is a strange move. It’s not even likely to get built – because, you know, Biden will probably have one or two better things to do than see it through. Did Trump owe a sculpting firm money? If he has anything about him, Four Seasons Total Landscaping will be designing the garden, surely. Perhaps he harbours a secret talent for stonemasonry and has given the contract to some barely-disguised firm that he actually owns.
I’d argue that, from now on, we ban any new statues from coming into fruition. Artist Maggie Hambling’s efforts weren’t exactly applauded when, after years of activists campaigning for some more female representation in public spaces, she unveiled a very small, naked figure of feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft in London. Such an iconic could have been honoured in a different way, maybe with her clothes on, critics argued. Who can forget the brief break from constantly hearing about transmission rates and isolating last year when instead we were treated to Statuegate amidst the Black Lives Matter protests as the statue of slaver Edward Coulston was torn down and thrown into Bristol harbour – only to almost rear his head again when some lads tried to heave him from the harbour and shag The Past.
And only this week, the government announced new laws to “protect cultural and historic heritage” – essentially, we won’t address the things that are dividing people (such as the fact that the people of Bristol opposed the Colston statue for years), but we will make it legal to charge you for tearing down a stone puppet.
Not to get too Christopher Nolan with it, but aren’t statues themselves a bit of an antiquated way to honour someone? Plus, it’s often doomed. Yes, Churchill lead us through a World War, but he also said some preeeetty racist things. Let’s find new ways to remember people, and make them less unanimous in their supposed greatness.
Let’s dedicate a tree to Anthea Turner, build a snowman for Joe Wicks, spray a few traffic cones gold when we do well at the Olympics. All of the above have inspired people a lot more than any politician, and you can’t really hate any of them. OK, maybe Anthea Turner on occasion, but you wouldn’t begrudge her a tree. Let’s treat all dedications like the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, have it for a bit, then move on and do something else.
I think we could all get on board with a lovely biodegradable tribute to Sir David Attenborough taking up space for a while, or a light installation dedicated to Stephen Fry draped over the British Library. Get creative with it. Stone statues were all the rage when we didn’t have a million photos or videos of those people doing things whenever we wanted them.
If Trump represents the ever-increasing merger between celebrity and politics (spoiler: he does), it’s beyond fitting that we would bow out by commissioning statues that include pop stars and film directors. As I write this, I’m watching the new president, Joe Biden, take the reins. By the end of the night, there’ll have been performances from Lady Gaga, J-Lo, Foo Fighters, Bruce Springsteen, Katy Perry and, yes, Garth Brooks.
Let’s pray there isn’t a statue of Garth in Washington monument by 2022. Keep politics out of public spaces, statues out of parks and pop stars out of stone. Enjoy the music, ignore the bullshit. Don’t immortalise either. Oh, and don’t let a reality TV star ever get the chance to sign an executive order again, if you can help it.