Other than for artistic merit I have never been a fan of statues because it literally puts someone on a pedestal. I have been thinking a lot about the recent removal of statues of famous men who are now seen as offensive or represent a troubled past. It began with the toppling of Samuel Colston who the people of 17th century Bristol saw as a benevolent philanthropist, but who made his fortune from trafficking slaves. Statues of Confederate Civil War generals then came under fire, followed by former presidents and fathers of the American constitution who owned slaves, like Thomas Jefferson. In Canada, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald has been held responsible for his government allowing the creation of residential schools to assimilate indigenous youth into Canadian society – an act that is now being called a cultural genocide.
We may agree these are troubling issues that don’t represent a rosy past but where do we stop? The axe is now falling on corporate leaders who exhibit bad behaviour in the office and, having experienced a toxic boss, perhaps that is warranted, but some recent events include a San Francisco Museum art curator who used a PC-inappropriate phrase which undid years of his work acquiring art from under-represented contemporary artists in the BIPoC and LGBTQ communities. Nobody is perfect, we have all sinned, but where does the line get drawn between being human and being inhumane? Like Robespierre’s reign of terror in Revolutionary France, when does cutting the heads off of those responsible become just a spectacle to watch heads roll?
I have not been a fan of the ‘Great Man’ theory that history progresses because of individual accomplishments. Some historical figures are remembered for their contributions but history is complicated and progress and change is most often the culmination of many hands – it’s just the one who gets the patent is remembered best.
In fashion, we hold names like Dior and Chanel in high regard but Dior’s New Look wasn’t really new at all – he picked up where fashion left off before World War II began in the autumn of 1939. Much of his debut collection in 1947 didn’t use the ‘New Look’ silhouette, and he wasn’t the only designer who did that silhouette. Chanel was a bully, a fascist, and a traitor. She used and manipulated others and was an opportunist who tried to take advantage of anti-Jewish laws in Nazi occupied France to claw back the rights to her perfume. These two designers made beautiful clothes but should they be held in such high regard?
A couple of years ago we received a donation of some clothes at the museum that had belonged to A.R. Kaufmann, a businessman who ran a rubber company in Kitchener, Ontario. He is remembered as a pioneering industrialist and his huge factory, famous for making galoshes, is now known as the Kaufmann Lofts. He was also an advocate for reproduction rights that, like Margaret Sanger, included eugenics – sterilizing the poor and working class from having too many babies – a popular notion in the 1920s and 1930s that many praised Hitler for practicing at the time.
We don’t have to look the other way when it comes to imperfect behaviour, but maybe we should avoid putting anyone on a pedestal.