One of the greatest distractions when it comes to removing statues is the argument that to remove a statue is to erase history; that to change something about a statue is to tamper with history. This is such arrant nonsense it is difficult to know where to begin, so I guess it would make sense to begin at the beginning.

Statues are not history; they represent historical figures. They may have been set up to mark a person’s historical contribution, but they are not themselves history. If you take down Nelson Mandela’s bust on London’s South Bank, you do not erase the history of the anti-apartheid struggle. Statues are symbols of reverence; they are not symbols of history. They elevate an individual from a historical moment and celebrate them.

Nobody thinks that when Iraqis removed statues of Saddam Hussein from around the country they wanted him to be forgotten. Quite the opposite. They wanted him, and his crimes, to be remembered. They just didn’t want him to be revered. Indeed, if the people removing a statue are trying to erase history, then they are very bad at it. For if the erection of a statue is a fact of history, then removing it is no less so. It can also do far more to raise awareness of history. More people know about Colston and what he did as a result of his statue being taken down than ever did as a result of it being put up. Indeed, the very people campaigning to take down the symbols of colonialism and slavery are the same ones who want more to be taught about colonialism and slavery in schools. The ones who want to keep them up are generally the ones who would prefer we didn’t study what these people actually did.

Meritocracy and democracy are not the same thing. The goal of meritocracy is to produce, or reproduce, an elite. There is nothing necessarily democratic about that. The Puritans who founded Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were very good at building stable and exclusive institutions, for many reasons, including that the elite, for them, were the elect: those specially chosen to receive God’s grace, the sanctified and saved few among the masses of the damned. In the early United States, however, New Englanders quickly discovered, to their dismay, that the fact that they thought themselves God’s elect did not mean much to many Americans, and they would be hard pressed to win national elections. Thomas Jefferson feared and reviled the Puritan schools, and founded the University of Virginia to counter what he saw as their anti-democratic influence.

Tropes and euphemisms abound for describing the old-woman artist. One of them has to do with time, specifically the idea that she went un- or underrecognized for so long because she was somehow out of sync with her moment. “Like so many women artists in postwar America,” art critic Laura Cumming writes in The Guardian, Herrera “seems to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Agnes Denes was, according to critic Anne Midgette of The Washington Post, “miles ahead of her time.” Even the artist Betye Saar, when asked by TheNew York Times why she thought she was getting major attention at age ninety-three, simply answered, “Because it’s about time!”

In this context, time means something close to a zeitgeist, and given that this is America, the mainstream, moneyed zeitgeist is almost always white, male, straight, able-bodied. By definition, women, especially women of color, never fit into their times, because the times are not made for them. Instead of confronting this fact, journalists and critics—especially white ones—tend to explain it away.

After our destabilizing pandemic year, greater public funding is critical for arts organizations across the country, which frequently find themselves beholden to the whims of impetuous donors. (Benefactors are renowned for supporting grand building projects upon which they can bestow their names; they are generally less interested in raising funds to, say, pay equitable wages to frontline and entry-level staff.) 

If government support for the arts in the United States seems totally pie-in-the-sky, it is not — especially at the local level.

  • Strike MoMA hosted a great conversation this week about the connection between mega-art collectors the Cisneros and the Museum of Modern Art. You should watch it:
YouTube video

The enduring connections between American empire, extractivism, and art are not always visible. Recently, the Whitney Museum’s show Vida Americana exhibited a mural replica of “Man at the Crossroads,” the 1934 fresco Diego Rivera commissioned for the Rockefeller Center. This powerful work was chiseled off the wall because Rivera painted Lenin’s figure in direct opposition to Rockefeller’s demand. Influenced by New York Leftist groups to make stronger visual connections to power hierarchies in his work, Rivera also painted in the figures of the peasant and the worker to envision directions for a communist future. This rare overt inscription to Cold War relations, and the role of Rockefeller as a kind of heteropatriarchal figure of hemispheric capitalism, is an important art archival trace of US economic and military domination.

There are also gendered implications throughout these imperial histories of extractivism, war, and architecture that are then returned as liberal philanthropic motives to establish uniquely American cultural institutions. Empires are forcefully taken and built and then given away through kinder gestures as the museum collection. When Mrs. Rockefeller founded MoMA with other millionaire wives, it was not merely a place to record, collect, and display art, but as the design for an institution of hegemonic cultural influence. And, John D. Rockefeller who initially opposed experimental modern art came to see that abstraction could be championed as free expression, which was pitted against the social realist art coming from material realities in the Américas. The history of museum collecting, then, must also be told through the wives of powerful barons as institution-builders of US white art hegemonies, as well as through modern/colonial distributions of cultural distinction.

After the invasion of Poland, SS Oberführer Hans Cramer instituted the wearing of a yellow triangle on the back of clothing worn by Jews. Elsewhere, Nazis already forced Jews to wear white armbands featuring the Star of David. By 1941, all Jews ages 6 and older were required to wear a yellow star on black background with the local word for Jew inscribed in the center.

That history makes the use of the Star of David badges by anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers to protest their perceived plight obviously crass. And it’s not a solely American phenomenon. Numerous German protesters marching against the vaccine have replaced the Nazi use of the word “Jude” (Jew) with “ungeimpft” (unvaccinated) in the center of their voluntarily worn armbands. British protesters have also invoked the imagery of the Holocaust to express their disdain for vaccine shots and masks.

This kind of appropriation is steeped in antisemitism. Felix Klein, Germany’s federal commissioner for Jewish life and fighting antisemitism, recently warned of the Jew-hatred rife in shutdown and anti-vaccination protests in the country. He has stated that although not all protesters against coronavirus mitigation efforts were anti-Semites, anti-Jewish sentiment was the “cement that binds them together.”

  • Simon Maghakyan, who readers of Hyperallergic should know, just published an important investigation that provides even more proof about the cultural genocide of Armenian heritage in the Nakhichevan region of Azerbaijan:

The president of Azerbaijan states that Armenians are not indigenous to Nagorno-Karabakh, while mirroring charges of cultural genocide by accusing Armenians of wiping out mosques. Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian sacred sites face a grave risk, not least because Azerbaijani officials continue to deny Nakhichevan’s erasure by declaring that Armenians never existed there.

While magical Agulis is forever gone, recently declassified materials offer help in reconstructing its erased historical landscape. A rare positive side-effect of the Cold War was the mutual clandestine map-making and satellite imagery collection activities by the US and the USSR. Thanks to these, the precise locations as well as discernible images of the major churches of Agulis have been preserved. All are from the 1970s, including two maps produced by the USSR General Staff’s Office that list all the major churches, and geospatial imagery produced by the US’s declassified spy satellite programmes.

These before-and-after satellite images are published for the first time. 

  • Professor Melanie J. Newton of the University of Toronto discusses the issue of academic freedom at the school, as scholar Valentina Azarova was denied the director job at the International Human Rights Program because of what appears to be the influence of financial donors. She frames it brilliantly in terms of anti-racism:

Gessen seems to distinguish between Azarova and Salaita because Azarova’s critiques of Israel were in a more respectable context (her peer-reviewed scholarship) and didn’t include any polemic or emotive language. Gessen mentions that Salaita was awarded more than $800,000 in compensation. They don’t mention that the scandal ruined his career or that, at least for a time, he had to take a job as a bus driver. They frame his language as ‘problematic’, with no discussion of who finds it so. I am pretty sure that there are other Palestinians, in Palestine and (like Salaita) in its diaspora, who do not.

When I read those lines as a member of the Black diaspora, I see all sorts of sinister parallels. I see powerful white people firing football quarterbacks for taking the knee on the football pitch to the U.S. national anthem. I see them making sure that, even after other white people ‘see the light’ and start taking the knee as well, that quarterback’s career is ruined forever. I see Black women in the U.S. who speak at public rallies about ‘taking the capitol’ being disciplined by white people who try to equate their critiques of authoritarianism with comments made by white supremacists who use the same language.

Some of the documents uncovered by the Guardian relate to the use of Queen’s consent, an obscure parliamentary mechanism through which the monarch grants parliament permission to debate laws that affect her and her private interests.

Buckingham Palace says the process is a mere formality, despite compelling evidence that the Queen has repeatedly used the power to secretly lobby ministers to amend legislation she does not like.

The newly discovered documents reveal how the Queen’s consent procedure was used to secretly influence the formation of the draft race relations legislation.

Zachary Kallenborn, a national security consultant specialising in unmanned aerial vehicles, believes there is greater risk of something going wrong when several such autonomous drones communicate and coordinate their actions, such as in a drone swarm.

  • This is funny (it’s from a satirical website):

Punk Didn’t Realize Being an Anarchist Would Require so Much Reading and Social Organizing

Required Reading is published every Saturday, and it is comprised of a short list of art-related links to long-form articles, videos, blog posts, or photo essays worth a second look.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.