The Cultural Power of Cast Bronze

The Cultural Power of Cast Bronze

It has not escaped our notice that cast bronze has taken an unlikely position on center stage in the national conversation. Many Americans would like to take down and/or relocate Confederate monuments and others want these statues to maintain their place in the public square. This long-simmering debate boiled over in the most painful way with the events in Charlottesville, VA, with a rally called "Unite the Right." This group consisted of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, KKK members, and others of the alt-right. Charlottesville was in the process of removing a bronze statue of Robert E Lee, a primary symbol of the Confederacy, and the "Unite the Right" rally was ostensibly organized to protest the removal. Many people in this group came in riot gear and were heavily armed. Counter-protestors came, some were armed, and predictably, violence boiled over and left 34 injured, and led to the tragic death of Heather Heyer, a counter-protestor, and two VA State Troopers who died in a helicopter crash while monitoring events on the ground. 

Most of you are already familiar with what happened in Charlottesville, but here are some thoughts about the events that have unfolded. (If you don't know the timeline of events, here are links to several informative articles that lay out what happened: "Recounting a day of rage, hate, violence and death" The Washington Post, "Charlottesville violence: A timeline of events" WJLA, "Charlottesville Latest: 3 Killed In Violence Linked To White Nationalist Rally", NPR)

So what does this have to do with casting? As we discuss in our book, casting allows for the exertion of power through potent lifelike imagery. Moldmaking and casting multiples allows for the propagation of those messages through duplication. Monuments celebrating leaders, generals, and specific battles go back thousands of years; just consider bronze images of Caesar or the incredible Terracotta Army created to guard the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. A more modern example of political power exemplified in bronze is the way statues of Stalin were propagated all over the Soviet Union

Statue of Stalin in Budapest, 1953. Hungary. Photo: Gyula Nagy / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Statue of Stalin in Budapest, 1953. Hungary. Photo: Gyula Nagy / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

The power of monuments has been understood by politicians, monarchs, and leaders of all kinds for thousands of years and that power still holds true today. The Confederate monuments that pepper American cities were erected for a range of reasons - some were a legitimate commemoration of a battle and were put in place soon after the Civil War. The vast majority were erected for more specious reasons during the era of Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation. Monument production slowed during WWII but there was another small bump in production during the 1950s- 1960s in the era of Civil Rights. There were also many dedications and re-dedications of Confederate monuments in this era, as if to cement the resolve in certain communities. These monuments were placed prominently in public squares as a larger than life symbol. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has mapped out when Confederate monuments were installed - check out their timeline.

“Look at any memorial or monument, and it’s always more about the time it was put up than the time it celebrates,” said Catherine Bishir, an architecture historian at NC State libraries. “As long as you can see when a monument was done and who did it, you have a clue what it’s all about.”
— "But is it Art?" by Kevin Drum, Mother Jones

The topic of Confederate monuments is often oversimplified; like everything in life, it requires an understanding of history and context to capture the nuances of the debate and to truly understand why these chunks of metal and stone affect us so profoundly.

This excerpt from "The Making and the Breaking of the Legend of Robert E. Lee" in The New York Times captures the multi-faceted perceptions of Robert E Lee over the last century and a half:

“By the time the Civil War ended, with the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, deeply unpopular, Lee had become the embodiment of the Southern cause. A generation later, he was a national hero. The 1890s and early 20th century witnessed the consolidation of white supremacy in the post-Reconstruction South and widespread acceptance in the North of Southern racial attitudes. A revised view of history accompanied these developments, including the triumph of what David Blight, in his influential book “Race and Reunion” (2001), calls a “reconciliationist” memory of the Civil War. The war came to be seen as a conflict in which both sides consisted of brave men fighting for noble principles — union in the case of the North, self-determination on the part of the South. This vision was reinforced by the “cult of Lincoln and Lee,” each representing the noblest features of his society, each a figure Americans of all regions could look back on with pride. The memory of Lee, this newspaper wrote in 1890, was “the possession of the American people.”

”Reconciliation excised slavery from a central role in the story, and the struggle for emancipation was now seen as a minor feature of the war. The Lost Cause, a romanticized vision of the Old South and Confederacy, gained adherents throughout the country. And who symbolized the Lost Cause more fully than Lee?

”This outlook was also taken up by the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers who idealized the slave South as a bastion of manly virtue in contrast to the commercialism and individualism of the industrial North. At a time when traditional values appeared to be in retreat, character trumped political outlook, and character Lee had in spades. Frank Owsley, the most prominent historian among the Agrarians, called Lee “the soldier who walked with God.” (Many early biographies directly compared Lee and Christ.) Moreover, with the influx of millions of Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe alarming many Americans, Lee seemed to stand for a society where people of Anglo-Saxon stock controlled affairs.

”Historians in the first decades of the 20th century offered scholarly legitimacy to this interpretation of the past, which justified the abrogation of the constitutional rights of Southern black citizens. At Columbia University, William A. Dunning and his students portrayed the granting of black suffrage during Reconstruction as a tragic mistake. The Progressive historians — Charles Beard and his disciples — taught that politics reflected the clash of class interests, not ideological differences. The Civil War, Beard wrote, should be understood as a transfer of national power from an agricultural ruling class in the South to the industrial bourgeoisie of the North; he could tell the entire story without mentioning slavery except in a footnote. In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of mostly Southern historians known as the revisionists went further, insisting that slavery was a benign institution that would have died out peacefully. A “blundering generation” of politicians had stumbled into a needless war. But the true villains, as in Lee’s 1856 letter, were the abolitionists, whose reckless agitation poisoned sectional relations. This interpretation dominated teaching throughout the country, and reached a mass audience through films like “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Klan, and “Gone With the Wind,” with its romantic depiction of slavery. The South, observers quipped, had lost the war but won the battle over its history.

”As far as Lee was concerned, the culmination of these trends came in the publication in the 1930s of a four-volume biography by Douglas Southall Freeman, a Virginia-born journalist and historian. For decades, Freeman’s hagiography would be considered the definitive account of Lee’s life. Freeman warned readers that they should not search for ambiguity, complexity or inconsistency in Lee, for there was none — he was simply a paragon of virtue. Freeman displayed little interest in Lee’s relationship to slavery. The index to his four volumes contained 22 entries for “devotion to duty,” 19 for “kindness,” 53 for Lee’s celebrated horse, Traveller. But “slavery,” “slave emancipation” and “slave insurrection” together received five. Freeman observed, without offering details, that slavery in Virginia represented the system “at its best.” He ignored the postwar testimony of Lee’s former slave Wesley Norris about the brutal treatment to which he had been subjected. In 1935 Freeman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography.

”That same year, however, W. E. B. Du Bois published “Black Reconstruction in America,” a powerful challenge to the mythologies about slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction that historians had been purveying. Du Bois identified slavery as the fundamental cause of the war and emancipation as its most profound outcome. He portrayed the abolitionists as idealistic precursors of the 20th-century struggle for racial justice, and Reconstruction as a remarkable democratic experiment — the tragedy was not that it was attempted but that it failed. Most of all, Du Bois made clear that blacks were active participants in the era’s history, not simply a problem confronting white society. Ignored at the time by mainstream scholars, “Black Reconstruction” pointed the way to an enormous change in historical interpretation, rooted in the egalitarianism of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and underpinned by the documentary record of the black experience ignored by earlier scholars. Today, Du Bois’s insights are taken for granted by most historians, although they have not fully penetrated the national culture.”
— The Making and the Breaking of the Legend of Robert E. Lee, The New York Times

This controversy around Confederate monuments in America is long and fraught with passions. Those passions erupted in Virginia last month. The stated goal of the "Unite the Right" rally in Chalottesville was to protest the removal of a statue of General Robert E Lee.  The problem with that stated goal is that they were clearly using the statue as cover for their real intentions. Interviews with the organizers make this abundantly clear. If you haven't seen the documentary created by Vice News on HBO, "Charlottesville: Race and Terror", check it out. It becomes abundantly clear that white supremacy was the real reason for their rally.


In the days since Charlottesville and the President's vacillating comments on what happened, there has been deeper and more thoughtful conversation on this topic and if there is a silver lining, that's it. The dark cloud, however, is not insignificant. Trump spoke in defense of keeping Confederate monuments, cast blame for the violence in Charlottesville on "both sides," and also claimed that there were "many fine people" there to protest the removal of the monument. David Duke and other white supremacists praised these comments and Trump didn't disavow them. It seems that in the era of Trump, white supremacy is ascendant. Here is CNN's recap of Trump's comments.

Since the awful events in Charlottesville, there have been many demonstrations against racism, and cities across America are reconsidering their attachment to their Confederate monuments. In fact, Baltimore removed theirs altogether.  In other cases, protesters have defaced or toppled monuments.


In the middle of this cultural clash, there's the question of what to do with monuments that are being removed. The most popular solution is for museums to take them or to relocate them to battlefields or cemeteries to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers, put them into private ownership, or move them to other locales that are not prominent public places. A big part of the objection to the monuments is their position in central public squares or overlooking cities, and therefore, looking down on people of color from a position of dominance. 

The Baltimore Sun's Dan Rodricks suggests melting the Annapolis bronze statue of Roger B. Taney (who was responsible for the Dredd Scott decision) and recasting it into coins that bear the images of Harriet Tubman and Frederic Douglass. Through selling these coins made of "Taney bronze" the city could then afford to commission a full-size monument to Douglass and/or Tubman. 

This idea of transmutation is directly related to the final chapter in CAST. In "Meaningful Materials", we explore casting with material that has intrinsic significance. What would it say about America if some of the mass produced Confederate monuments that have no real artistic merit and were consciously erected with the subtext of white supremacy were recast in the image of abolitionists and Civil Rights leaders? Clearly this is not the solution for all Confederate monuments, but as we continue to grapple with the original sin of slavery in our country, acts like this could become a poignant chapter in our redemption.

The takeaway, when it comes to thinking about casting and monuments in general, is that  symbols matter and that there is power in their reproduction. This power must be wielded with care. Our values, culture, and perception of who we are as a people are channeled through what we choose to put in our public spaces and that is a grave responsibility. Monuments can exert messages of dominance or aspiration, white supremacy or equality - we just need to decide who we are as Americans and be sure that our symbols accurately reflect the best we have to offer. 

In closing, I will leave you with Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans, who began the process of relocating their Confederate monuments before the events of Charlottesville. His speech is thoughtful, deliberate, eloquent, and represents everything good in America.


Added 9/4/2017: This is a current list of public and courthouse Confederate monuments  and when they were erected. This list is distilled from this page on Wikipedia that cites 600+ sources. After much research, this was the best sourced list I was able to find. With such wide range of sources, this seems to be reliable, but if there are errors, please contact me.

Katya Izabel Filmus, "Painkillers", a Closer Look and a Correction

Katya Izabel Filmus, "Painkillers", a Closer Look and a Correction

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