A new statue for Bristol?

In a striking intervention into the Black Lives Matter debate, a statue of protester Jen Reid has been placed on the plinth where the statue of Edward Colston used to stand. The sculptor, Marc Quinn, has explained that it is only intended to be a temporary installation.

Debates around statues always put me in mind of the anecdote about the woman who agrees to sleep with a man for one million dollars, but responds indignantly when he suggests lowering the price to ten:

Woman: What do you think I am?

Man: We’ve already established what you are. All we’re doing is bargaining about price.

Most people would agree that it was right to remove statues of Hitler – probably Stalin too.  (And for this reason the argument – made by Boris Johnson among others – that removing statues amounts to lying about history seems inadequate.) Most people, conversely, would be concerned by an indiscriminate mass removal of images depicting anyone who held views incompatible with contemporary mores.

And even people who broadly agree with each other about where the line should be drawn might disagree about methods.  Someone might support a campaign to remove or ‘recontextualise’ Bristol’s Colstone statue, but feel uneasy about its forcible toppling.  I see this as a reasonable position, although personally, having read more about the life of Edward Colston, the relationship between his heavy involvement in the slave trade and his high position in Bristol, the efforts made to get rid of his statue by lawful means, and the text of the plaque describing him as ‘one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city’, I sympathised with the step taken by the protestors.

It seems appropriate to worry about slippery slopes though, particularly if the threatened images are of great aesthetic or cultural significance.  I can understand why people are concerned about the statue of Cecil Rhodes outside Oriel College in Oxford, given (some of) his views on race.  Although, within the context of his own day, he was certainly no extremist, I’m not completely convinced by Mary Beard’s argument, although it certainly seems worth engaging with:

But the battle isn’t won by taking the statue away and pretending those people didnt exist. It’s won by empowering those students to look up at Rhodes and friends with a cheery and self confident sense of unbatterability — much as I find myself looking up at the statues of all those hundreds of men in history who would vehemently have objected to women having the vote, let alone the kind of job I have.

Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees, seemed to strike the right note when he said that the future of the plinth needed to be decided by the people of Bristol, although it’s hard to know what solution will satisfy the disparate constituencies he describes:

 “This will be critical to building a city that is home to those who are elated at the statue being pulled down,” he added. “Those who sympathise with its removal but are dismayed at how it happened and those who feel that in its removal, they’ve lost a piece of the Bristol they know and therefore themselves.”

Perhaps a good starting point for the rest of us is to, like Rees, try to understand a range of responses without assuming the worst of those who reach them.

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