Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dialogic statuary: A thought experiment

The south side of the Texas state capitol and grounds. Click to enlarge. Image found here.

I'm going to assume for the sake of argument that Texas' capitol grounds are typical of most state capitol grounds, in that they have their share of monuments to various people or events. (In case you're curious, here is the list of monuments on the grounds in Austin; interestingly, you'll note that no monument is dedicated to a single individual, but only to groups of people or to events; one (alas) is a monument to the Ten Commandments.) No matter our speculations as to how or why some of these came to be where they are, there they are. What I want us to consider here is their placement relative to each other. They are scattered about, significant in and of themselves to be sure but otherwise devoid of context, and certainly not presented in such a way that the monuments can be said to be representative of a timeline of events or that the figures they represent are in symbolic conversation with each other. Speaking as someone who still enjoys visiting the Texas Capitol's grounds whenever I'm in Austin, I know that there are always plenty of people walking about, looking at the monuments; but what exactly is it that they are seeing when they look at these things? Do they wonder, for example, why they are placed where they are on the grounds--assuming of course, there's some significance to their placement? I know I've never given any consideration to that question, before last week.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog's open thread on the 15th, commenter WAKnight posted the following: "Did you know that Annapolis Maryland has a statue of Roger B Taney in front of the statehouse? Now that you do, don't you kind of wish that you didn't? [. . . ]If anyone has any other replacements to suggest beyond the ones I suggested, suggestions are welcomed in comments." A respondent replied with "John Rock, the first African-American admitted to argue cases before the SCOTUS." (John Rock has no historical connection to Maryland, but you can see why the commenter suggested him. Another, down-thread, suggested Thurgood Marshall, who was born in Baltimore; WAKnight replied that there's already a sculpture of Marshall on the statehouse grounds, but on the side opposite from the sculpture of Taney.) Anyway, I suggested that rather than replace the Taney sculpture, why not have another, appropriate sculpture facing the Taney, as if engaging him in conversation?

So, here's the thought experiment: If consideration in choosing and placing monuments were given to the idea of a state's history not as static moments existing in splendid isolation from other static moments but as an evolving, multivoiced narrative, what would such a capitol ground look like? How might that change the movements and conversations of people among the monuments?

Here's an example of what we might end up with in Austin, assuming current monuments in their current places and a change in the implicit policy of there being no monuments to specific individuals on the grounds. If you look at the picture of the grounds at the beginning of the post, the two monuments nearest to the Capitol's south entrance are the granite Heroes of the Alamo and the bronze equestrian monument to Terry's Texas Rangers, a renowned Confederate cavalry outfit that operated in the Western Theater of the Civil War. (This organization didn't give rise to the Texas Rangers of law-enforcement fame, in case you're wondering.) For what it's worth, the horseman on the Rangers monument is facing the Heroes of the Alamo monument. There's a wide sidewalk that intervenes between the two monuments.

This will never happen, but: what if, centered on the wide walk between those two monuments, there were a sculpture of Sam Houston: leader of the victorious Texans over Santa Anna during the Texas Revolution (hence his (admittedly tangential) link to the Heroes of the Alamo) and/but also forced to resign as Governor when he refused to swear allegiance to the Confederacy when the legislature voted to secede (hence the link to the Terry's Texas Rangers monument; the Rangers, coincidentally, organized in the city named for Houston). How might the Houston sculpture be posed so as to indicate that it's not there just to impede foot traffic up the walk? Is this sort of symbolic conversation "appropriate" to stage at the very footsteps of the south (and most prominent) public entrance to the Capitol?

And you reading this: Is this nuts? I am asking in all sincerity. If it is nuts, please tell me why. And if it's not nuts, what conversation(s) can you imagine or would like to see take place on the grounds of your respective state capitols?


R. Sherman said...

The Missouri State Capital is "all Jefferson, all the time," plus nods to Lewis and Clark, Truman and the like.

As for your post, I need to come back as I'm battling the flu and cannot seem to form rational sentences at the moment.


John B. said...

Hey, Randall. Hurry up and get to feeling better.

I did a little reading about your state's capitol, and it strikes me that its alternative--a kind of mythologizing of the state's origins--is preferable to the charm-bracelet thing that's going on in Austin. Example: Whatever one's personal feelings are about monuments to the Confederacy on capitol grounds, the fact that Texas's capitol grounds has three separate ones (more even than for the Texas Revolution, though that gets plenty of space inside the building) says more about the prevailing politics of the time (1880s-early 20th century, when they were installed) than about the state's desire to present a coherent narrative of the state's origins.

So, yeah: color me envious of Missouri's state capitol grounds.