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Must the Columbus Monument Come Down?

All photos (c) Harvey Kopel

Donald Martin Reynolds, a Columbia University professor who taught and authored numerous books about sculpture, architecture, and public art, wrote: “sculpture began in New York City, as it did in America, as the most permanent way to honor the dead and to make life more pleasant” (Monuments and Masterpieces: 1997, p. 3). He also said: “Monuments give meaning to life by providing communities and groups with a way to communicate their traditions and beliefs from generation to generation.” Reynolds added: “Monuments deal with lasting ideas, which stand the test of time. As such, monuments have been considered by some students of human nature to be measures of people’s progress along the road of civilization because they commemorate those principles they preserve, honor, and cherish” (Monuments and Masterpieces: 1997, p. xi).

As an amateur observer of public art, I have come to understand that the very principles or reasons for a sculpture’s creation in one era may be lost to future generations. In addition, the represented image may be understood in very different ways than first intended.

The Christopher Columbus monument, at the eponymous traffic circle in Manhattan, is a case in point. When the monument was unveiled in 1892, it served as a grand statement that Italian immigrants had made the transition to being Americans. The Italian sculptor, Gaetano Russo, displayed the Genoan explorer as a brave discoverer crossing stormy seas and giving thanks to God for the land he found. The inscription in the photo below may be difficult to cipher. The words acknowledge that Columbus received criticism (and was jailed) in his own time, yet he is credited with enabling the settlement of a new world.

In a full-page ad in the August 25, 2017, New York Times, the Columbus Citizens Foundation asserted their dedication to the preservation of the monument. The Foundation’s President, Angelo Vivolo, responding to the current reexamination of New York City public monuments and the possibility of removing works like this one, allowed that Columbus “partook in actions over the course of his career that were deemed unjust.” He then continued: “The Foundation believes that these actions and their long-term consequences deserve serious reflection and acknowledgment, but we cannot and will not deny the role this seafarer from Genoa had in the eventual shaping of the United States of America.”

Although Columbus may be enshrined in the memory of some as the discoverer of the New World and the debunker of the flat earth myth, he was actually neither. Indigenous people from Asia were the first humans to journey to the Americas; Scandinavians were the first Europeans to do so. Columbus was, by all accounts, a skilled seaman (who long held to the mistaken belief that he had found a short cut to Asia) who would colonize parts of South America and numerous Caribbean Islands under the Spanish flag. The narrative about Columbus now acknowledges that he was also a brutal man who enslaved, tortured, and kidnapped natives and forced them to accept Christianity. Even if we exonerate Columbus for the deaths of myriad natives due to the diseases carried by their colonizers, there is no sugarcoating the inhumane treatment of the people Columbus found in the Americas. In short, not only was Columbus a slaver, he was ultimately responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people. Columbus opened the Americas to colonization and also engaged in reprehensible acts, if not genocide.

While European settlers celebrate the “discovery” of a New World, the indigenous people mourn the loss of their land, their way of life, and the lives of their ancestors after Columbus’ voyages. So what principles do we wish to honor with this monument? The opening of a hemisphere and its vast resources to Europeans, the very beginnings of the American experiment? Or should Columbus’s statues be removed as symbols of injustice and greed?

How we understand a monument (or anything, for that matter), is influenced by our past as well as the present, what we know, who we are, the experiences we have had. It seems clear that the “real story” and how we understand it is affected by whether we see ourselves as having benefited from Spanish colonization or whether we feel we were exploited by it. One good thing that has been happening amidst the rancorous debate about public monuments is that we are getting a more complete picture of who the people in bronze or stone actually were and the consequences of their actions. We are learning that all humans are imperfect and that some did horrific things despite being known for acts of courage or works that have benefited large swaths of humanity.

To soothe the present outrage over all forms of injustice politicians may decide to remove a specific statue in the belief that it will ease tensions or that the person does not deserve to be honored. However, removing a statue does not enlighten us nor can we erase what happened to make our present lives possible.

Let’s be honest and admit that the story of the founding of our country, the settling of the Western Hemisphere, is also the story of displacing the people who were here first; it is a story of exploitation. Unless we want to pack it all up, move to some currently uninhabited planet, and invite the indigenous people to return to their homeland, we can’t undo this history or make amends by taking down a statue. What we can do, are perhaps obligated to do, is to more accurately tell the complete story as we learn it.

The Columbus Monument is not the only controversial work you’ll find in Central Park in Bronze. In future blogs, I will discuss the lesser-known facts about some of the other works and present the issues as objectively as possible. Of course, it is easier to describe the problems than to suggest solutions that will work for all the constituencies interested in the art. At the end of the series of blogs, I will offer my take on some ways forward. For now, I invite you to share your knowledge and suggestions concerning the works of art in the Park and how they serve our noblest ideals.

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