The recent protests against racism in the United States, and subsequently all over the world, have translated into strong demands for destroying structures and statues of historical significance. One would grow curious to understand the purpose behind such demands and the need to satisfy them.

To facilitate the comprehension and appreciation of these demands, it becomes important to draw a connection between past events and contemporary times. The BBC documentary The French Revolution: Tearing up History by Richard Clay is insightful by presenting the turbulent political period in France that set the stage for the New Modern World.

The documentary takes us back to the period of the French revolution and helps us understand the psyche of the masses when the mass destruction of art took place. It gives us a perspective on the idea of a revolution through the destruction it caused. 

The history of ‘vandalism’

The message given in this hour-long documentary is that the infamous ‘vandals’ of the revolution were not ignorant and negligent, but were tactful and political in their actions of destroying objects of art, statues, buildings, symbols of the Ancien Régime and other such representation of the power of the French monarchy, clergy, and aristocrats. We know this because the obliteration and destruction were either spontaneously carried out by the masses or ordered by the existing political body.

A body called the Monuments Commission was set up to oversee that the cultural objects of the Ancien Régime were annihilated. A set of instructions was given to the masses to proceed with organised acts of destruction following the decrees to abolish feudalism. Whatever material was left in the debris was to be used to construct the new symbols of modern France that represented ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity.

The abodes of the aristocrats and nobility, and the interiors of the churches were ransacked and the metal obtained (if any) from the wealth of art that lay inside was used to mint more coins for the poor. Article 4 of the Instruction, however, prohibited the destruction of artifacts and objects of art and culture that would have some cultural, educational, or historical significance. These were to be seen as the cultural heritage of France and perhaps remnants of the extravagant indulgence of the upper-class French society. These would remain as a constant reminder of the causes of the revolution that would be kept preserved for posterity. 

The throne of king Louis Philippe is burned in the place de la Bastille, at the foot of the July Column, during the French revolution of 1848, 25 February 1848, Paris | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Richard Clay refuses to term these acts as ‘vandalism’. Instead, he terms these acts as ‘iconoclasm’, or deliberate and planned attacks on the images that represented the political and societal power, which the French masses did not associate with and refused to maintain obeisance to due to their inhumane living conditions. Their actions were more politically motivated rather than unreasonable, mindless, and ignorant acts of barbarity.

All historical structures and statues, seen as a symbolisation of power, wealth, and hegemony, were destroyed. Some targets of the Iconoclasts were the statue of Louis XVI, the coat of arms that carried the fleur de lis (representing royalty), and the statue outside the gate entering into Paris. These were symbols of the French monarchy, and tearing them down was symbolic of the regime coming to an end and the new sovereign, the people, filling the power vacuum. The documentary, thus, portrays the legitimate and rightful acts of destruction of historic monuments in the context of the French revolution.

Desecration of racist statues

In contemporary debates, traditional art and culture, including historic statues, monuments, and cultural property, are regarded as part of an elitist, oppressive, and exclusive culture unrelated to the general concerns of society. This perception is manifested in the present Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the US.

The protestors have taken to the streets in support of preventing further police brutality towards members of the Black community. Their anger has resulted in violence and destruction of statues of former slave-owners and leaders of the confederacy in the country. These actions are not mere acts of causing destruction, but are strategic political statements rejecting the oppressive authority of State actors.

The continued existence of these statues despite the proclamation of emancipation for the Blacks shows a complete disregard for the oppressive and inhumane treatment meted out to the Blacks when they were slaves. These statues seem to glorify a repressive and cruel past in the History of a country that espouses the ideal of freedom and equality of human beings.

A desecrated statue of Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, during a #BlackLivesMatter protest in Virginia, 5 June 2020 | Photo: Ron Frazier, Flickr

These iconoclastic waves have also moved the masses in Europe to demanding the removal of statues of lionised colonialists, White supremacists, and slave owners all over Europe, including King Leopold II in Belgium. This has been received with plans to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College, Oxford University, to lay off opinions of institutional racism.

The question that arises is, do we need to preserve and protect heritage or symbols of art that are redolent of a despotic and undemocratic period in History?

Henri Gregoire, best remembered for his criticism on the revolutionary iconoclasts, in his reports stated that this attack on objects of art was an attack on its rich and vibrant culture as well. It could be said that in the process of overturning the power hierarchy in France, the people were also undermining the creative skills, talent, and caliber of the local artisans, artists, and other abled personas who made a reputation for themselves in the Fine Arts.

Also read ‘Canada Needs to Reckon With the Relics of Its Colonial Past, Including Racist Statues’

The attack on art was seen as ‘axioms of ignorance’ by Gregoire, due to the lack of understanding of the didactic potential of the Fine Arts, and the ensuing erasure of History from our lives. He thus coined the term ‘vandalism’ from the word vandalisme in French, attributing a negative connotation to the word ‘vandals’ discussed in the article ‘The Origins of Vandalism’ by A. Merrills.

Gregoire also formulated an argument supporting the preservation of historic monuments due to its nexus with revolutionary ideas. He supported the idea of imposing a public duty to preserve these structures. This is because respecting these symbols reflected tolerance and was in line with the spirit of liberty which was the value espoused by modern France. The idea was to fuse the revolutionary movement and the preservation of Fine Arts by giving importance to the creator of the work rather than the patron.

This is also what William Dalrymple talks about in his 2004 article for The Guardian, ‘The Rubble of the Raj’ where he despises the move of the Indian Government to take down the quaint but beautifully constructed bungalows of Lutyens Delhi. which he sees as a highly reminiscent symbol of British colonialism in India. 

A typical Lutyens bungalow in New Delhi, India | Photo: Flickr

In the context of the BLM Movement, some may suggest that these statues serve to remind us of a past so brutal that it succeeds in deterring actions that would offend and carry a flavour of discrimination towards members of the Black community. These remind the colonial and White supremacists of the inhumane practices of the past and discourage them from discriminating against people consciously or subconsciously. 

However, the support to take down such structures come with their own set of persuasive reasoning. Marginalised communities are tired of colonial iconography and the compulsion to remember a past that has been merciless to them.

As a rebuttal to the erasure of history, supporters of iconoclasm would say that these statues and structures are not appropriate in narrating our history. For instance, it is stated that the maintenance of these structures seems to deify the unjust past experienced by the Black community. While they stand as reminders to refrain from discrimination at present, their initial erection conveyed the celebration of supremacy, heroism, and domination of one race over the other. It is seen as a form of memorialisation.

Also read ‘“Everyone is Watching”: Two California Women on Racism and #BlackLivesMatter’

This pathos remains in the memories of all those who were freed from slavery and is instilled in the future generations since the emancipation of Blacks was proclaimed. They tell people from marginalized communities that their views do not matter and that they need to tolerate living under the shadow of men who oppressed their ancestors. They affect the mind of the oppressed, by nudging them to remember the cruelty and inequality they faced, and serve to demoralise them from acknowledging their autonomy in a free world today.

If there are structures that we must preserve, those must be ones that are artistic and creative.  

History is never straightforward and its complexity demands multiple perspectives on an event, rather than singular, reductive narratives. The structures are permanent and fail to accommodate multiple changes in society and history. They do not evolve with the changing social mores in our continuously changing world. To bring in change, the masses use iconoclasm to destroy structures and bring diversity to the narrative. This eventually translates to a change in the mindset among people, and pushes for reform in practices of State agencies.

The preservation of these statues and structures fail to fit in the current milieu of equality, liberty, and human rights. Iconoclasm, thus, stands as a political statement of expressing dissatisfaction and discontent of the masses with oppressive power, hegemony, procedures, and processes that are used by the State or State agencies against marginalised sections of the society.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Tasha Bluewin Joseph recently graduated from the Jindal Global Law School, where she also served as a Teaching Assistant for the ‘Conflict of Laws’ course. Tasha has written for The Law Review Anthology, and tweets @TashaJo30064846.

Featured image: “The Storming of the Bastille”; visible in the center is the arrest of Bernard René Jourdan, m de Launay (1740-1789) | Wikimedia Commons