In Defense of Iconoclasm

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I hate statues.

Not just Confederate statues.  Not just slave trader statues.  All statues.  Queens.  Presidents.  Generals.  Prophets.  Take them all down.

No person should be a permanent symbol of public adoration.  And that’s what statues are:  they freeze people in faux-perfect time.  If commissioned during a leader’s lifetime, they’re often exaggerated ego trips.  If created after death, they’re expensive icons to a fabricated mythology.  Statues celebrate wealth, conquest, or other worldly success while implying perfection and eliding flaws.  Pedestals are cages.  I hate them.

My Catholic husband — who loves both classical and sixteenth century religious statuary — is horrified by my iconoclasm.  “I may understand where you’re coming from,” he teased last week after a lengthy debate, “but also I think you should be burned at the stake.”

Him calling me a heretic embodies my point!  Statues incite religious fervor.  Regardless of whether some person led a movement, an army, or a country, we tend to react to their statues with zeal.  Public symbols of people promote hero-worship.  You’ve all seen it on social media this month:  even the suggestion that an engraven person might have been nuanced or flawed is met with outrage.  It’s “desecrating their name.”  A proposal to move a ghastly sculpture to a museum is “destroying history.”

This is literally idolatry.  Scripture has a lot to say about idolatry.

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.  Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”  (Exodus 20: 3-4; Leviticus 26:1)

For when the Lord comes, “The haughtiness of men shall be made low … and the idols he shall utterly abolish.”  (Isaiah 2).

It’s not like this is a new debate.  Iconoclasm furthered the split between Catholics and Byzantines.  Iconoclasm furthered the split between Catholics and Calvinists.

I am squarely in the Calvinist camp when it comes to religious art.  I’ll always prefer country chapels over the Sistine Chapel.

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Country chapel in Germany, photo by Julia Solonina on Unsplash.  I could worship all day in monochromatic chapels with unadorned walls.

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Sistine Chapel, Rome, 2020. Photo: © Governatorato SCV – Direzione dei Musei.  My favorite part was the geometric floors; the rest was utterly overwhelming.  Why do people like Michelangelo, again? 

This is one reason I love Islamic art:  no people.  (I love abstract art.)  Arabesque is just geometric engravings of the text of the Qur’an.  As the calligrapher Aisha once told me: the kufic script “is not concerned with legibility — it is understood that the message, the Word, is there, and gazing upon it is enough to receive its blessing.”

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The Alhambra in Granada, Spain, photo by Isak Gundrosen on Unsplash. I love it and its gardens so much I spent a semester here in college.

Islam gets it:  that’s why my friends knew I would love this viral joke.

So when, as in the last few weeks, letters to the editor sarcastically ask whether society should remove all statues to great leaders like George Washington, Robert E. Lee, Brigham Young, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, my answer is unqualified:  Yes.  Remove them all.  If the focus of our faith is to worship Christ, we should stop worshipping Brigham Young and Joseph Smith.

Admittedly, my objections to statues are more aesthetic and sociological than religious.  I understand that sculpture as an art form requires immense skill.  I understand that visual arts provide deep meaning to many, and that symbology helps others emotionally relate to history, faith, and the world.   I don’t want to destroy statues, and as a First Amendment maximalist I certainly don’t want government or religious edicts to ban them.  But I hate statues, in the same way that I hate portraiture, and in the same way that I refuse to decorate my home with pictures of people, including family.

I hate them because they are frozen in time.  I hate them because they’re crafted to elevate “heroes” without context.  I hate them, fundamentally, because they’re inauthentic.

In the words of the Psalms:  “They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not;  They have ears, but they hear not; neither is there any breath in their mouths.”

So give me raw text.  Give me piercing music.  Give me nuanced biography.  Give me photo essays where the snapshots combine to tell a story of authentic life.  But do not freeze people in faux-perfect time.  And above all else, do not hold up those frozen images for public adoration.

I make one exception: for Christ alone.  He was perfect and he is our Savior.  But even then, I dislike him frozen.  I dislike the Christus, of a white Jesus risen and triumphant.

For me, God is found in authentic vulnerability.  The most powerful image of Christ I have ever seen was in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.  Smaller than a sheet of paper, this piece was used in the 15th century for private meditation and devotion.

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This is the God I love, and no one else will I adore.  Not in portrait, and not in statue.

*Cover photo by Justin Wilson, my mayor in Alexandria, VA.  He made the decision to remove the confederate monument in front of the courthouse earlier this month.

Comments

  1. No More says:

    Bravo! And while we’re at it remove all the personal names from streets and buildings. The LDS church is a huge culprit of the hero worship, especially at BYU. Cougar Stadium wasn’t good enough, they had to rename it after a coach. And I think every single building on campus is named after some man. Why the need to memorialize men? Just stop it. And the Christus, I hate it!!! I was absolutely disgusted when RMN introduced that silly new symbol for the church. I wanted to gag.

  2. Almost I am persuaded. It helps that I like Islamic art and architecture. The “almost” is because for me the argument is too broad, too big. I in fact distinguish between sculpture—much of which I appreciate—and statuary—all of which I would abolish. Acknowledging that at the edges I probably have to resort to “know it when I see it” distinctions.

  3. richellejolene says:

    I’m totally with you on being aesthetically uninterested in most portraiture and statues of people. But I do think it’s important to make the distinction between sculptures intended as art to be housed in an art museum versus statues that serve as public monuments to “history.” (ETA: Sounds similar to the argument Christian made above.) The latter have much more political valence, I’d argue, and it’s those I take issue with. To folks advocating to add more statues of women, Black leaders, etc. to even the playing field, I’d invite us to consider the ways in which these forms of memorializing in themselves have traditionally served white nationalism, white supremacy, and colonialism. Many cultures are uninterested in commemorating things this way, including Native Americans (see the controversy around the Crazy Horse Memorial, e.g., https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/23/who-speaks-for-crazy-horse). We have a lot of work to do as we move forward.

    Thanks for the post and starting this important discussion!

  4. Carolyn says:

    To be fair, I don’t hate all statues / sculptures. It’s really, as Richelle says, statues of historical figures intended for public veneration. But if they’re more abstracted (like the Statue of Liberty), or originally created for private viewing and moved to a museum later, or purely artistic works depicting a nonspecific person (like certain pieces of unnamed dancers), then my objections to the art form rapidly diminish.

  5. Nobody is perfect. But a handful of people did contribute greatly to society, and even if they did bring everyone along equally, some people are worthy of being placed on a pedestal. If more people were like those who built up nations and fought against tyrants, I think the world would be a better place. Having them as visual examples probably helps.

  6. Though I get where you’re coming from, I think I have to agree with your husband. I love public art, be it representational or abstract (and we have both in huge quantities in Chicago). We’ve got a great statue of Shakespeare in Lincoln Park. We have Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow at the corners of Oz Park. The Daley Center downtown has an abstract Picasso sculpture.

    I agree that we should tear down every single Confederate statute in the U.S. But I hate the idea of eliminating any category of public art broadly, unless and until we’re willing to invest in new public art.

  7. Carolyn says:

    Sam, I love public art that isn’t of people. Chihuly for everyone!

  8. Billy Possum says:

    Well I hate blogs. So there!

  9. mcbethjb says:

    I’m with Carolyn. Statuary is the worst. While we’re at it; historic figures off of my currency, streets, buildings, and naval ships. We venerate our savior, we extol virtues. As our Savior pointed out, there is none good, but one.

  10. Geoff - Aus says:

    Thought provoking, Political statues, and statues of discoverers, usually began the disowning/destruction of the aboriginal peoples, totally agree.
    Statue to the unknown soldier rather than the general.
    I don’t see the sistine chapel or the corridors of art that lead to it as anything but art. Overwhelming yes, but no more than a large art gallery like the louvre. Michelangelo’s david is incredible, but I was equally impressed by an unfinished statue nearby where it looked like a statue was stepping out of the block of stone it was being carved from.
    The motivation/purpose of statues is often revealing of the society, and those in power. That many of the confederate generals were put up by white supremacists in the mid 1900s, says enough, they should go to contribute to harmony.
    Australia day celebrates the day the first british settlers arrived, but is seen by the first nation people as invasion day, it should be changed to the date of federation, so we could all celebrate it.
    We should all be aware of the consequences of our celebrations.

  11. In jumping to a qualifier (sculpture vs statue, above) I failed to add a big thumbs up for Carolyn’s idolatry point. As I think about the several defenses of statues that I have heard recently, I sense a two-fold message—that idolatry in the right place is a positive good and that this (the statue and the person in question) is one of the right places, i.e., a good case for idolatry. I reject that thinking.

  12. Loursat says:

    Carolyn’s point about idolatry is well made. On the other hand, we can and do make idols out of almost anything, so I’m not convinced that doing away with all public statues would meaningfully reduce idolatry. If we are so inclined, we will find a way.

    Public statuary as such has never bothered me. Lots of it (most of it?) is pretty cheesy, but in general I see beyond the person of the figure who is depicted; I see the shared values that the statue represents. I acknowledge that I might be unusual in taking this view. If so, then Carolyn’s argument has a lot of force.

    The question that bothers me most is whether public statuary invariably serves to impose a powerful group’s values on others. It’s now clear that the function of Confederate monuments is to carry the message that Southern Whites lost the Civil War, but they kept the power to kneel on Black people’s necks whenever they felt like it. Public monuments that stand for a message like that obviously have to go. The act of removing such monuments is one way of actively rejecting the message. But I wonder whether public statuary by its very nature exists for oppressive purposes. Even if there are multiple meanings for a public monument, it troubles me to think that political domination might always be one of those meanings, a meaning that is often invisible to the group it benefits most.

  13. This is a weak argument from the start. I fundamentally reject her premises, and if you don’t buy those premises, then the rest makes little sense. This is classic straw-man plus plenty of value judgements (“ghastly sculpture”). Such sweeping generalizations as found here are indicative of an attempt to make her personal feelings sound serious. We can debate idolatry all day long, however, not from first crying “statues incite religious fervor” and “public symbols of people promote hero-worship,” with the weakest of supporting evidence. And statements like “Statues celebrate wealth, conquest, or other worldly success while implying perfection and eliding flaws,” again without evidence, serve no purpose other than to permit her to make a weak claim and then strike it down. It also permits those like Loursat above to make political statements as if they were revealed truth, when they are in fact personal opinion.

  14. Carolyn says:

    Bob: I know iconoclasm isn’t popular. So sure, disagree with me and my premises. But what I’m actually more interested in is WHY you disagree with me.

    What do statues / public art mean to you?

    Why do you enjoy them, or find them important in society?

    How would you propose dealing with the problem of Confederate statues, or homages to brutal dictators?

  15. I hadn’t considered it until a couple months ago, but I believe the prohibition against graven images, if taken seriously from a fundamentalist perspective would change the world better (assuming people also didn’t go off the deep end when others break it).

    Consider no statues of people. Should also expand to paintings. Should expand to mirrors. Photo and video too. “Any graven image” should mean that. Our Muslim brothers didn’t take it far enough or were too busy living in summer homes in Babylon rather than Mecca.

    Would the world be a better place if we lost cute photos of our kids but also lost the Kardashians, porn, body shame inducing magazines/movies etc?

    Is it a terrible thing that we don’t have any photos of Jesus? Would he be sad about it? Would he have words to say to Peter commissioning a statue of him with graven nail prints in his hands? I assume he’d have much to say. I can’t imagine him looking kindly at all on that.

    I do think all the art and startues are beautiful masterpieces. But I don’t believe for a second Jesus would have supportive things to say to one of his contemporary disciples who suggested he sit for a statue engraving or portrait session.

  16. Jimothy says:

    Generally agree, I also enjoy more abstract art forms like the Islamic tradition as well as several indigenous american traditional art forms, many of which have a similar abstract geometric thing going on.

    On the subject of the Christus though, while I’m a particular fan of the specific piece (when visiting temple square for the first time as a youth and seeing the space Jesus and found it kind of creepy, my dad would always joke that Jesus was actually that size), I am OK or at least ambivalent about President Nelson making the Christus the symbol of the Church. If the objective of the church is to present itself as Christ-centered as possible, I suppose it makes sense to go with an easily recognizable image of Christ that’s monochromatic so it works for logo purposes. I can’t really think of any other candidate that would work as well for logo purposes.

    What I find interesting though is that there does appear to be a generational shift in attitudes about this kind of art and representation. Seems like us younger folk, as especially the youth, are more concerned with more ‘intimate’ and familiar roles of spirituality and religion. I’m a seminary teacher and some results from a recent world wide CES survey among CES students pointed to a lot of students interested in this thing, a more inward and personal relationship with Christ and faith. And I think this carries over into preferred visual representations of Christ, more low intensity intimate pieces, and not the sort of imposing monument style like Christus that invokes a sense of a conquering war hero or something, like a military victory monument, as the OP mentions.

  17. “It’s now clear that the function of Confederate monuments is to carry the message that Southern Whites lost the Civil War, but they kept the power to kneel on Black people’s necks whenever they felt like it.” This.

  18. After years of feeling completely invisible as an LDS woman in my spiritual community, I began to wonder if I was invisible to God too. I found healing and representation in the sculptures of several iconic cathedrals I was lucky enough to visit. Contemplating the feminine divine as represented by Mary and her baby–knowing that these depictions of woman and motherhood are a prominent part of sacred Christian spaces–helped me know that I’m seen and that there is a bigger tradition of Christianity that I (and my womanhood) am very much a part of.

    My loved ones are special. Music, even piercing music, as enjoyed by most, is often dysregulating and overstimulating. Dyslexia presents barriers to raw text, and executive functioning deficits barriers to those nuanced biographies (believe me we do our best with audiobooks and read alouds). Photographs are great… But there are no photographs of Mary. No photographs of Nike. And while I don’t have a problem with nude sculptures and am very grateful for how they’ve stood my puritanical sensibilities on their head and have led to important answers to questions about the cultural importance of beauty while teaching me to desexualize bodies (as in naked does not always equal sexy), I have a harder time having those conversations and arriving at those conclusions with nude photos. Maybe if those ancient Greeks had figured out digital photos instead of spending so much time with chisels, I’d get it better.

    Some sculptures are really important to me. Seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta with my children moved me to tears. Seeing Henry Moore’s Mother and Child and statues of Mary in Notre Dame made me ugly cry because at last I saw myself and my work as a mama as part of the Christian story.

    Some sculptures have for too long caused pain to people who’ve been served systemic racism and sexism all day and every day. I’d like to see such statues replaced with statues that inspire and represent more of us and especially the black, brown, and female of us.

    Anyway, I’m rambling now, but I get very worried when people make sweeping statements about the worthlessness of art. For people who approach the world differently and have depended on art, sculpture especially, to understand and find where and how they fit in the great big story of the world, it is very worrisome to find such sweeping dismissal. Knowing that generations of Christians found the contemplation of Mary and her love and sacrifice of her son an essential and important part of their very holiest of spaces and worships, is dear and important to me. Don’t tare down all statues. Replace the heinous ones. Create representation for all of us.

  19. Sorry, I hade to write why _I_ love Michelangelo. And it’s because he took Mary’s grief and her pain and taught us all that while father Abraham was saved from making that terrible sacrifice, she was not. There was no ram in the thicket for Mary. Who else had to sacrifice their perfect son to save the world besides God themself?
    The Pieta is a beautiful and a remarkable sculpture. And I think it is made more remarkable because it shows us how much we can understand and learn from each other. Mich was not a mama. He was not a woman. But this was important for him to try to understand and to struggle with and to create so that others (men, children, women, all of us) might begin to think about this… Grief. Sacrifice. Love. This is a messy, beautiful part of humanity. How could you not love an artist who attempted to do that? And then how could you not love and artist who accomplished that while capturing the majesty of not just Mary but motherhood and womanhood???

  20. I would have commented earlier, but it has taken hours for my optic nerves to work themselves out of the knots they tied themselves into with the violent eyerolling caused by this post.

  21. EnglishTeacher says:

    👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

  22. Carolyn says:

    Amy: thank you. I have learned a new, raw perspective from you and I love it.

  23. Antonio Parr says:

    Would you remove Michelangelo’s Pieta? How about King David? These are some of the greatest artistic creations of civilization.

    Sculpture is an exquisite art form, one that has been embraced throughout the world, going back as far as 30-40,000 years ago. And when I see sculptures of great historical figures, I always see them as monuments to their virtues – virtues that are worthy of emulation – and never a call to also embrace their weaknesses.

    So – a statue of Washington or Jefferson is a celebration of their courageous commitment to democracy. I do not see it as a monument to their status as slaveholders.

    A statue of Martin Luther King is a celebration of his tireless commitment to equality for all. I do not see it as a monument to his alleged sexual improprieties or his purported support of prostitution.

    Etc.

    And, as to the Christus statue, why in the world would you call it a “White Jesus”, other than the fact that the marble is a light color, which is something that is a byproduct of the medium and not a conscious choice of the artist. I live in a city with a very large Jewish population, and know Jewish men whose features are not at all dissimilar to the one portrayed on the Christus statue. I see a Jewish Jesus when I see the Christus. Is it on par with Michelangelo? No. But is it a beautiful work of art that inspires viewers to remember Christ’s invitation to the weak and heavy-laden to come to him? Absolutely. Long may it stand.

  24. I know it is en vogue with the SJW crowd right now to deface and topple statues. I doesn’t seem to matter if these are figures of confederate leaders or champions of emancipation, the goal seems to be wiping out any trace of a system they have grievances with at this present moment in time. Imagine if we didn’t have the statues from ancient Egypt of the many dynatsic rulers from that time. We would be ignorant of that history. In addition to the statues from the ancient world, the pyramids, temples and cathedrals (most built by slave labor or indentured servants} provide a window to the past, for better or worse. Can we or should we erase our past just because it doesn’t conform to present social norms? Or heaven forbid, our current artistic preferences? What about the stelae of Mesoamerica or the carvings on the pyramids there? These edifices tell a story of human history. We may like some of the stories and abhor others, however they all make up the tapestry of our shared human experience. I know some in our generation would like to rewrite history to reflect their social and artistic preferences, however, this a short sighted and selfish POV. Our shared history belongs to future generations and statues are a tangible part of that history, surviving where more fragile records may not. If the current generation would like to commemorate the heroes who represent their ideals of social justice, by all means, erect a statue, but leave our history alone, it belongs to everyone, not just the “woke”. We will never change human behavior by obliterating or rewriting history-or tearing down statues.

  25. Kristine says:

    Antonio, here is an interview with the authors of an excellent book about the problem of white representations of Jesus. There’s a section on the LDS Christus that is an important read–I initially made exactly the same argument about the light marble, but I changed my mind after reading the book. https://www.npr.org/2012/11/19/165473220/color-of-christ-a-story-of-race-and-religion-in-america

  26. You make a lot of great points, but then I think of all the amazing things we wouldn’t have like the Sphinx in Egypt, or the giant Buddha statues that dot Asia, Mount Rushmore and the newest addition of Crazy Horse, and a really cool statue in Illinois of Chief Blackhawk near Dixon on the Rock River. I see them as important historical markers.

  27. While I was a history major, I was very interested in social history. The lives and travails of everyday people. Particularly during the European Middle Ages. At the time, the interest in social history was just finding its way. But with advances in science, today social historians are doing fun and important work.

    My point is: worship of “famous” people distracts from the contribution of ordinary people. History is more than Brigham Young or Thomas Jefferson. Look at our heroes today: fast food workers (many are Hispanics), nurses, first responders, etc. I love the tributes to unknown soldiers. At Verdun and in Cambodia, I was touched by the ossuaries. The Viet Nam memorial in Washington DC is certainly impactful. But we need to de-emphasize statues of “famous” leaders, particularly those with corrupt causes and questionable pasts.

    Having said that, we need artistic sculptures. The Picasso in Chicago, Michelangelo’s David, Rodin’s Thinker. They are great works, yet very generic, and don’t encourage hero worship of undeserving (or “deserving”) individuals. This is complex issue. And certainly one that the Church should address.

  28. Oh no! How can can one of my favorite bloggers doesn’t like most religious art!?!? :) (I actually know what you mean about most political statues though…they can feel weird, like un-supportable hero worship…although the statues on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and War Memorial monument in Indianapolis are very nice). But what about the art in the catecombs, the many Christ Pantocrators, and the Theotokos of Vladimir? Seriously though, I know what you mean about the Sistine Chapel, the first time I went there I was both over and underwhelmed. All my senses were being triggered, but I didn’t get the point. A few years ago, I went to Rome again in a pilgrimage led by Edward Sri (I’d HIGHLY recommend it to you and your husband, based on what I know of you guys from this blog, you’d LOVE it). It was a life-changing trip in a lot of ways, the way he unlocked what was actually going on in the Sistine Chapel and Raphael Rooms, among many other works, absolutely floored me. It was like I was watching the story of salvation history happening all around me. The people in the art, the prefigurement, the virtues, the relationship different pieces had with each other, I finally figured out why this room was so loved! Hope you guys can possibly go with Sri sometime and get as much out of it as I did! :)

  29. Handlewithcare says:

    CB, we always tore down statues, that is part of human behaviour too. In my life time I’ve seen the tearing down of Saddam Hussein in Iraq as a symbol of triumph over the oppressor. In the UK, where we, amongst others conquered, were taken into slavery by the Romans, we tore down the beautiful Roman villas with underfloor heating and used the stones to make foundations for huts once they left. If questioned, I imagine the Britons might have expressed something along the lines of how great it was to get the Roman knee off their throats

  30. “Cougar Stadium wasn’t good enough, they had to rename it after a coach.“

    “A” coach? You mean THE coach. If there’s a Saint in Mormondom it’s Lavell Edwards, for oh so many reasons.

  31. Vickie Boling says:

    Ok. I know my comment isn’t scholarly. I think statues are creepy.

  32. Billy Possum says:

    Carolyn:

    Amy’s perspective isn’t rare. People who “get very worried when people make sweeping statements about the worthlessness of art” probably includes artists, professors of the humanities, antiauthoritarians, antipopulists, journalists, kindergarteners, and high school students reading Orwell or Huxley. I always enjoy (and agree with!) the insights you share in your posts. It strains me to believe that you can’t see the intellectual threat posed by your position here. (Seriously, I had to re-read the OP before concluding, finally, that it wasn’t jet-black satire. Is it?)

    Regardless, the category of people who *should* be alarmed by such sweeping statements as yours [warning: normative claim approaching] includes, it seems to me, advocates for the First Amendment. That’s you, right? I could respect positions skeptical of government speech in general, or against the content of public statuary in particular. But moralizing on a entire *medium* (i.e., a forum) of others’ expressions – public or private, ugly or beautiful – is something which I, a fellow attorney, public servant, and progressive liberal, simply cannot stomach.

  33. I like statutes. As a young man, many statues inspired my love of history and historical figures. Two of my favorite statutes are Pat Tillman at Cardinals Stadium and the Nellie Unthank statue in Cedar City. Neither of these statues will likely ever be considered “great art” but they have a way of making me seriously think about who these people were, and why they did what they did.

  34. Billy: I really am not calling for the banning of statues, and I know people aesthetically disagree with me, and that’s fine. I am attempting to target a relatively small swath of art: historical figures carved into statues and then set up in places for public veneration. That’s what bothers me, and I dislike.

  35. Carolyn,

    I’ll echo some of rogerdhansen’s thoughts here.

    For me, the more important underlying points here are cultural and religious, rather than aesthetic or artistic (though the aesthetic points echo the religious ones, as often happens). President Hinckley was fond of reminding us that our responsibility in our sphere of church work is as important as was his in his. We love this thought–and like to think that fulfilling a calling as a primary teacher matters just as much as being prophet–but our culture (and art) too rarely reflects the substance of that teaching. Or, rather, our culture and art very much do reflect our tendency to, well, quite literally put prophets and apostles on pedestals.

    This is problematic on the one hand because it handicaps us in recognizing the contributions of women (by definition) and, until recently, of anyone whose ethnicity was anything other than Caucasian.

    Even beyond this, however, it reflects a deeply problematic misunderstanding of our theology because it suggests, as you point out, that prophets exist in a different, timeless, almost immediately immortal sphere.

    This view (widespread in our culture) tastes tart with irony since the prophets who wrote our scriptures so emphatically deny the view. Nephi, often viewed as little more than the heroic captain of “I will go, I will do!”, has actually given us writings rife with self-reflection, self-questioning, self-doubt, and pleading for us to understand that he was a man and that he understood his own imperfections. We seem almost unable to help but put him on a pedestal but he seems unable to stop himself from pleading with us to take him back down off of it.

    This all matters theologically for many reasons.

    One, because making prophets into statues torpedoes our ability to infuse nuance, grace, and compassion into our understanding of those very men. When we think Joseph was, like Mary Poppins, “practically perfect,” and then we run up against his very real shortcomings, we’re left not feeling compassionate toward a man staggering under the weight of a smothering prophetic mantle, but instead angry that he wasn’t who (we think) he said he was.

    More to the point, such unrealistic understanding of who prophets are and claim to be otherizes ourselves, seeming to place us in a different, and lesser, spiritual sphere. This is also sad and ironic since the argument can be made that one of Joseph Smith’s chief religious projects was to bring us–the common, non-statue-worthy–into contact with the Divine. What, after all, is the endowment if not that?

    So, where does that leave us in terms of statues? I’m not much for tearing things down (though some ardent wrongdoers should go) but I would be in favor of statues that show prophets struggling mightily with the weight of their calling, shrinking from the grand task in front of them and then choosing to somehow bear up the burden anyway, terribly sad at the thought of their shortcomings, grappling with an assignment that seems forever beyond them.

    Perhaps a statue of SWK on the mountaintop after his call, considering that death might be easier than believing he could be an apostle.

    More importantly, give me statues of Jane Manning James, fighting to honor her faith while facing racist persecution from some of her fellow saints and somehow continuing faithful notwithstanding.

    Give me the pioneers of the last wagon.

    Let’s adorn our buildings with statues of single mothers, struggling just to get by and hoping to pass on the gospel to their children, overwhelmingly difficult circumstances aside.

    How about the single woman who serves for decades as primary teacher or the black teenager who braves ignorance and slights at BYU to pursue an educations there or the young man, tortured by doubt, who still does his best to serve on a mission anyway?

    But show the struggle, the pain, the grappling–show that they are human.

    And that the prophets are, too.

  36. I really enjoyed this discussion because I live in a southern town where the local pedestaled confederate stood at attention until very recently. Thank-you, Carolyn, for throwing out a topic that gets people reared up and ready to spar in the ring of ideas.

    I particularly appreciated your thoughts, Tyler. This very week the topic came up at dinner, “Who is your hero?” and there was an expectation that everyone would have something to contribute that could withstand some scrutiny. My husband always stands by Fred Rogers–which I totally support because there is definitely something profoundly charitable about how Fred lived that never ceases to amaze me. That said, I really hesitated at the question because I feel like the “hero thing” has changed for me. I’m far more inclined to look at my neighbor Carol up the street. A survivor of three bouts of cancer, widow of a cantankerous and long-winded man, now living with her divorced son and handicapped grandsons, Carol has modeled joy and courage in life for years. This is the everyday heroism that most statuary and most public veneration misses.

    Do we bag the whole enterprise? Put the human form out of business? Stick to the abstract and rather vague (and often meaningless to the masses) shapes that spring up around our public buildings? Growing up in DC I always loved how the Vietnam Memorial had enough of an open-ended structure that it invited the viewer to participate with the monument through their own reflection, recognition of names, space for a memento to be placed in companionship. I like to think that we have a lot of options and room for exploration.

  37. I’m having a hard understanding how statues and photos are frozen in time, but text and music is not. To me text and music are more frozen in time than any statue as we do not speak, write, listen or play the same type of books and music that were made years ago. We even designate time by what kind of music was created and enjoyed or how text was written or spoken during that period. I can look at a statue and have no idea when it was created, but that not the same with music or text.