cover image Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments

Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments

Erin L. Thompson. Norton, $25.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-393-86767-1

Thompson (Possession), a professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, examines in this trenchant account “the ideologies, hatreds, and ambitions” behind America’s public monuments, and the debate over “what we can and should do with them now.” Briskly recounting the toppling of a statue of King George III by rebellious New Yorkers in 1776, she notes that “long before American artists ever created a monument, American protesters tore one down.” Thompson also reveals that the bronze Freedom statue on top of the U.S. Capitol building was “made by a slave owner and one of the men he enslaved,” and that 19th-century sculptor Horatio Greenough, the “father of [American] monuments,” enshrined his racist beliefs in statues of George Washington and a clash between white settlers and a Native American warrior. In the 1880s, Southern elites erected monuments celebrating rank-and-file Confederate soldiers for their “obedience” as a means of discouraging poor whites from joining labor unions, according to Thompson. Though she calls for communities to decide the fates of problematic monuments, Thompson concedes that tearing them down is “all too often the only real option.” Full of intriguing historical tidbits and incisive cultural analysis, this is a worthy study of a complex and controversial issue. Illus. (Feb.)