Photo by Eze Amos/Getty Images

Nemesis comes to Charlottesville

As Americans gleefully melt down statues of Confederate leaders, they may soon discover that iconoclasm is no road to civic peace

Artillery Row

A Jewish American, visiting Jerusalem over Sukkot last month, came over all funny in the Antiquities wing of the Israel Museum. He started knocking over statues, cursing them as “idols”. Before they arrested him, he did some permanent damage to a marble head of Athena. His attorney, rather creatively, blamed Jerusalem Syndrome — the religious mania that overwhelms some pilgrims to the Holy Land. Next day was 0ctober 7th, when terrorists broke through Israel’s western border en masse and went on a murderous rampage on a scale unprecedented in this century.

“That’s what happens,” said one online wag, “when you offend a goddess of war.”

Tasteless? Undoubtedly, yet the root cause of the unfolding mayhem in Gaza seems to depend on who’s telling the story — which must start no later than 2005 or 1947 or 1929 or 1916. Some insist on 77 AD. Honestly, who has the time? Divine intervention is far more comprehensible.

Athena is only Jerusalem’s most recent artistic victim of fanaticism. Earlier this year on the Via Delarosa, another tourist got mediaeval with a hammer on a statue of Christ. The Vatican called it a “Hate Crime” but stopped short of doing an Urban II and preaching another crusade. Israeli security analysts see this vandalism as part of a surge in religious extremism, but that is myopic — these incidents are local variations of a global Iconoclastic trend, now entering its baroque period.

Traditionally, being virtuous involved dreary chores like volunteering at soup kitchens and helping old ladies cross streets. These days, the fastest way to get to heaven is destroying art. Hammers must be the in-thing with iconoclasts because they were used this week in London to attack a Velázquez nude in the National Gallery. Don’t panic — the group responsible, Just Stop Oil, mean well. Good intentions also abounded in Virginia last month when a sculpture of General Robert E. Lee was melted down.

The bronze equestrian statue which once bestrode Charlottesville was especially controversial. As Confederate statues were falling across the country in 2017, it was the focus of a violent rally by neo-Nazis — the bad kind, not the ones they have in Ukraine — at which a young woman, Heather Heyer, was killed. The statue was finally torn down in 2021 in what Charlottesville’s mayor called a “step closer to a more perfect union”.

A noble sentiment — which, if we take it seriously, means that footage released last week of the statue being dismembered at the foundry (“Exciting news! We’ve melted the Lee Statue!” tweeted Swords into Ploughshares Charlottesville) was intended as another unifying gesture.

Amazingly enough, that is not how it struck many conservatives.

Could the point actually be to humiliate vanquished opponents?

“They absolutely want your extinction,” Elon Musk told an insulted Southerner. Author Louise Perry found it sinister, too: “destroying humanoid figures seems to be such an obvious emotional proxy for public executions.” The podcaster Darryl Cooper, meanwhile, observed that media giants like The New York Times goading on the destruction makes this iconoclasm entirely different from Civil Rights of yore. “Race riots in the 1960s were uprisings of the oppressed: violent outbursts from people without institutional access or power. Today’s revolutionaries lack neither access nor power. They are the foot soldiers of one side of a culture war, and enjoy massive institutional backing.”

What gives, daddio? Are these squares just being sensitive? Can the point of this public mutilation actually be to humiliate vanquished opponents? That would make something billed as a shared moment of interracial catharsis seem rather petty, wouldn’t it?

Whatever it is, it’s a reflection of our divisive politics and not those of the 1860s. The century of the America Civil War is often characterised as an age of humbug and cant, but our era of Be Kind or Else has hypocrisy to spare, coupled with the recklessness of a tantrum-throwing toddler. The generation of Lincoln and Lee tried desperately to avoid schism; our generation endlessly indulges childish fantasies of civil war.

Lincoln and his contemporaries knew they were living through a tragedy, not a morality play. General Lee was no villain, but his cause was wicked; Lincoln was no saint, but his cause was righteous. Lee’s military genius was ultimately fruitless. Lincoln’s moral genius, to be ruthless when necessary and merciful when possible, transformed America for the better. Exercising such generosity requires the self-knowledge that it is unnatural to do so. It is far easier and far more satisfying to grind an enemy’s face in the dirt and laugh. After the prodigious slaughter of the Civil War, Lincoln’s optimistic dream of binding up the nation’s wounds, “with malice toward none; with charity for all”, actually came to pass — not perfectly, not by any means, but well enough that a truly United States soon leapt upon the world stage and astonished it.

As what would be the first American century dawned, the boundlessly confident and now continental nation tentatively began weaving the Civil War into its national story. It did so, inevitably, with evasions, half-truths and buckets of romance. The horrific slaughter was twisted into an agreeable shape, becoming a gentlemen’s disagreement about the limits of state rights — an irenic myth that allowed North and South to look one another in the eye again. The sin of slavery, it was decreed, had been more than expiated by the war’s 660,000 dead, and let that be an end of it. That urge to reconcile, forgive and omit explains why Henry Shrady, the sculptor of the recently destroyed statue, was also the creator of the Union memorial in front of the US Capitol. At the centre of this sits General Ulysses S. Grant, Lee’s great antagonist, solemn in his costly victory.

I suppose it’s forbidden today, but I remember climbing up onto the adjoining cavalry charge group to study closely the marvellously vigorous modelling. No artist can ever hope to admire the Lee statue that intimately. It exists now only in pictures. Rightly so, many say — white Americans had no business forgiving each other whilst slavery cast its long shadow. This argument has some validity, but to belatedly insult a vanquished people’s fallen heroes comes with a cost. Whatever it achieves, it is unlikely to be a “more perfect union” — not any time soon.

Iconoclasm consumes everything finally, even those who feed it

Proof came promptly. It was predictable enough that the image of Lee’s glowing face, as it was melted down, would be polarising. Even so, the intensity of outcry was surprising. As was the picture itself: seeing bronze pour from a crucible is always a dramatic moment. There’s something elemental about molten metal. Lee’s last moments were a strange metamorphosis: tears of fire coursed down what looked like the face of a promethean demiurge encased in a steam cloud, white hot metal transmuting into a god of war. Accidentally, an act of iconoclasm created a new icon.

Much like that mugshot where the 77-year-old Donald Trump managed to channel John Dillinger’s bad boy charisma, releasing this image of what should have been BLM’s greatest scalp seems to have been, in propaganda terms, an unforced error. A “self-own”, I believe the kids call it. “This is the face,” the artist Alexander Adams predicted, “that will launch a renaissance of cultural resistance … ”

Maybe. Maybe not. These things tend to energise hyper partisans online, be entirely ignored by normal folk, and last about as long as mayflies. Be that as it may, the intention of Swords into Ploughshares is to reuse the bronze to create an artwork that is more “inclusive”. One can imagine how it will be received by acolytes of this new god of war. That’s the problem with iconoclasm. It is a fire that consumes everything finally, even those who feed it.

Besides Athena, the other statue that the crazed tourist attacked last month in Jerusalem was a gryphon-like carving of Nemesis, the Roman goddess of revenge. The sin Nemesis punishes most savagely? Hubris, overweening pride. Sufferers of Jerusalem Syndrome exhibit messianic megalomania, intolerance of graven imagery, and faith that a universal spiritual awakening is nigh. Sound familiar?

Clearly Covid 19 wasn’t the only virus to circle the globe recently. How long before we achieve herd immunity from the iconoclastic bug and remember that melting statues appeals to the same atavistic instinct as burning books? Those indulging in this barbarism may begin with good intentions, but symbolic violence leads inevitably to the other kind. Tread carefully. Nemesis is waiting.

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