Overview:

As toxic monuments come down, what are communities going to fashion in the space that’s been opened, and with the materials once put to malign purposes?

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Citizens in Charlottesville, Virginia, are giving input on what kind of public art ought to be created at a park where a massive statue once stood.

Not just any statue. The monument glorifying Robert E. Lee. Not just any park, but the site of the infamous “Unite the Right” rally of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and “alt-right” denizens in 2017.

The best part? Whatever public art takes shape at Market Street Park (formerly “Lee Park”) will be made of the bronze from the Lee monument. The Confederate general and his horse, Traveller, will be melted down and refashioned into something more in keeping with the community’s values.

This, I believe, is an ideal scenario for dealing with Confederate monuments and, for that matter, any other toxic public art. Tearing (or melting) something down is only half the job. What are communities going to fashion in the space that’s been opened, and with the materials once put to malign purposes?

Removing or deconstructing propagandistic displays “can literally and figuratively clear the ground for deliberate consideration and creative envisioning,” writes Jalane Schmidt, a University of Virginia religious studies professor who is leading the drive for new art on the spot formerly occupied by the Lee statue. “What kind of memories should be prioritized for display that can sustain our work toward a future based upon empathy and equity?”

Tearing (or melting) something down is only half the job. What are communities going to fashion in the space that’s been opened, and with the materials once put to malign purposes?

That’s a much better question than the one that drove the creators of the Lee statue and so many other Confederate monuments. Which was, essentially, how could they reassert white supremacy and intimidate nonwhites into submission?

I’m encouraged by several recent encounters I’ve had with projects devoted to refashioning harmful objects into something better.

Such as the workshop I witnessed earlier this spring where an Episcopal ministry taught divinity students the art of melting down rifle barrels and reshaping them into farming implements. An enactment of Isaiah 2:4 from the Hebrew Bible— “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks”—the event offered the visceral gratification of taking a tool for violence and putting it to the torch. But that was just the first step. Glowing orange, the melted barrel was laid on an anvil and hammered into a shape that made it a tool for growing food rather than destroying life.

“Swords into plowshares” is also operative in Charlottesville, where a bronze monument symbolizing the violent subjugation of a people is going to be burned. Not to cinders but to the point where it can be “turned into something that gives healing and restoration,” as Jalane Schmidt puts it.

When it comes to monuments and other public art, it’s not just about turning “swords” into more edifying objects. It’s also about filling the gaps in the story. We see a resounding example of this in the push to create a memorial to Thomas Paine in the District of Columbia.

Paine has been, in many ways, the founder who has not received his due in public memory and the historical retelling of American history. Indeed, there might not have been a revolution if not for Paine. His acclaimed, widely circulated Common Sense was the first pamphlet to make the case for American independence. His later books Rights of Man and The Age of Reason were enormously influential. Endearing him to secular people today are his unflinching critiques of religious tyranny and his roaring articulation of a humanistic take on life: “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”

A group called the Thomas Paine Memorial Association has been at work raising funds and support for a Paine statue. This spring, it declared victory on the fundraising front, and U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin introduced legislation that would provide authorization to construct the memorial in the capital. Sculptor Zenos Frudakis—whose works include a Clarence Darrow statue in Dayton, Tennessee., the site of the infamous Scopes “monkey trial”—is lined up to create the Paine statue. Next, the group will pursue Paine statues for Philadelphia, New York City, and New Rochelle, New York, where Paine lived for a time. 

Ann Druyan, an honorary member of the Paine Memorial Association, put the project in perspective at a fundraising event this past winter. American society, she said, “has come to the point where we’re able to look squarely and critically at some of figures in American history and tear down the statues of (people) who committed crimes against  humanity. We’re not tearing down statues because we’re opposed to history. Indeed, it’s our love of history—truthful history—that makes it so important to erect statues in honor of those whose values have meaning for us.”

So it is with the wider project to project a positive articulation of secular values into the vacuum left by religion’s recession in the Western world. As we used to say at the late, great Yale Humanist Community, there’s more to being nonreligious than what you don’t believe.

The questions, then, are what do we believe? And what testaments to our values will we create?

Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion, meaning, and values in public life. A longtime columnist for USA Today, he is the author of three award-winning books, including "Confessions of a...