The Aesthetics of Empire: Neoclassical Art and White Supremacy
“I went to see great works of art before barbarians who cannot even recognize great works of art destroy them.”
B. Frank Earnest, spokesman for the Virginia chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans, speaking about Confederate statues in Richmond on NPR’s Code Switch podcast, August 23rd, 2017.
In the fight to contend with the racist symbols that populate the United States, much has been made of the threat of erasure: the erasure of history, of national identity, of beauty. There is a foundational shift happening throughout the culture, and as artists, makers, shapers of visual culture, we must recognize our stakes in this shift and the particular strategies of white supremacy that are deeply embedded in our field. So let’s talk about the “beauty” and “history” that we contend with when we confront the reality of these statues, in terms of art history and the aesthetic ideologies of Western Art.
The Robert E. Lee Statue in Charlottesville represents: a defeated general, on the losing side of a war. In bronze he is memorialized with an equestrian statue, a style with a history that stretches deep into antiquity, but most notably was a common trope of the Roman Empire.
This is the Robert E. Lee statue (bottom, center) in its art historical context. On the left is the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius (ca. 175 CE), highlighting his divine power. The figure itself is not only over life-size, but the proportions between the body and the horse enhance his prowess. Mediaeval accounts described a bound barbarian (the fallen enemy) under the horse’s hoof. The emperor is victorious, and while he is mounted on a horse to symbolize his military power, he isn’t wearing armor or holding weapons, his power so complete that he doesn’t need them. On the far right is the Equestrian Statue of Charlemagne (or Charles the Bald). Hoping to tap into nostalgia for the grandeur of the Roman Empire, this depiction of a French king mimics the classical style on a much smaller scale. The statue is a kind of aspiration, the king holding an orb symbolizing the world in one hand, a raised sword—now missing—in the other. In the center top is Donatello’s Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata, commemorating a successful mercenary upon his death, and marking the return to Classical aesthetics as central to Western European art. Unlike the Marcus Aurelius statue, Gattamelata is depicted in proportion, and in comparison looks small, more human and less divine.
A closer look at the Lee statue in this context reveals a few telling details. Proportionally, Lee’s status falls somewhere between Marcus Aurelius and Gattamelata. In particular, the bulkiness of his uniform cast into the solidity of bronze creates a sense of mass that is more robust than Gattamelata without being quite as proportionally hyperbolic as Marcus Aurelius. The statue has a two-faced quality. In the image on the left, Lee is shown with his hat in his hand, a sign of humility. This was part of a series of adjustments made by Leo Lentelli when he took over the design of the monument that are described as “quieter but more dignified” in the application to place the statue on the National Registry of Historic Places. However, on the right, the pose is markedly different (perhaps a remnant of the “vitality” of the original design). His arm is almost violently reining in his horse, his sword sheathed, but close to hand. The ambiguity of the gestures leaves interpretation open: Is Lee biding his time? Holding his wrath inwards? Feigning defeat? Perhaps waiting for the appropriate moment to put that hat back on his head?
Sophie Baramowitz, Eva Latterner, and Gillet Rosenblith trace how the unveiling of this statue in 1924 aided in the oppression of the city’s black communities. The statue then becomes symbolic of white Southern identity: the war never ended; the field of battle simply shifted. Statues of Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and their contemporaries are not markers of history any more than a portrait of a Roman emperor was. They are placed throughout this empire to remind us about their power. And the source of this power isn’t simply political, it is divine.
On the campus of UNC Chapel Hill sits “Silent Sam” a monument financed by UNC alumni and the United Daughters of the Confederacy to commemorate the students who fought on the Confederate side of the war.
Below the depiction of a Confederate soldier (“silent” because he holds a rifle but no cartridge box) is a relief of a female figure with her hand on the shoulder of a young man. On his lap is an open book; another book has fallen to the floor beside him. He looks away from his studies and up at the woman. In some descriptions she is identified as the personification of North Carolina, calling the student to his duty. As these statues were consistently produced in a neoclassical tradition, we could surmise that her dress is referencing Greek and Roman goddesses. This, combined with the presence of a sword (held to also resemble a cross) points to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war. This divine call to fight for white supremacy was not lost on those who attended the statue’s dedication in 1913. Julian Carr, Confederate veteran, industrialist, and supporter of the Equal Suffrage League of North Carolina, relied heavily on classical and religious references in his speech at the ceremony, comparing the Daughters of the Confederacy to Niobe (whose children were slain by Apollo), Andromache (in Greek mythology, a woman warrior), Penelope (from Homer), Lucretia (Ancient Rome), the women of Carthage (Rome again), along with Christian references like Joan of Arc. In the same speech he brags about “horse-whipp[ing] a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” one hundred yards from the statue’s current location, asserts that “the political geography of America would have been rewritten” and “there would never have been an Appomatox [sic]” if the rest of the Confederacy had “done what North Carolina did.” He compares Confederate soldiers to the Knights of the Holy Grail and asserts: “No nobler young men ever lived; no braver soldiers ever answered the bugle call nor marched under a battle flag.”
But perhaps the clearest illustration of the true meaning of the statue comes right before the story of whipping a black woman in front of a garrison of Federal soldiers and then hiding out in the University buildings:
“The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South – When ‘the bottom rail was on top’ all over the Southern states, and to-day, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States – Praise God.”
The phrase “the bottom rail was on the top” is from a story of a freed slave who, upon seeing his former master in a group of Confederate prisoners calls out “Hello, massa; bottom rail on top dis time!” The statue is the symbol of the return to the rightful order; the project of Reconstruction (the upending of that order) had failed, and the “purest strain of the Anglo Saxon” had reasserted its political and social dominance. His personal story of publicly whipping a black woman for insulting a white woman is the illustration of this return to the “correct” order of things that the statue represents.
The connections drawn between the Confederacy, Christianity, Anglo Saxon heritage, the Roman Empire, and Ancient Greece are not accidental. They are part of a larger mythology of whiteness that has been carefully constructed for centuries and is intimately linked to the foundation of the United States, with neoclassical art serving as its propaganda. The classicist Page duBois, in her book Slaves and Other Objects, argues that we must understand slavery as foundational to Greek culture, and draws the connections between Western scholarship’s elision of slavery in the classics and the troubling hierarchies of “human” that exist in contemporary Western culture:
“One result of the crucial place of slaves in the ancient Greek economy is the possibility that there were and are some humans at the beginning of Western civilization understood to be more human than others; that being human is not an absolute condition but rather a gradual one. On a sliding scale on which some humans approach the status of things, of objects. This understanding of human being is somehow imperceptibly inscribed into enduring ways of thinking–about politics, about others, about our own bodies, about material existence.”
In order to fully understand the stakes of our present, we must dig down into the roots, into the dirt, into the things buried that feed the leaves above. In Black Marxism Cedric J. Robinson recounts an episode during the Middle Ages where human flesh was purportedly sold, roasted, at a stall in a village faire. We can think of this incident as a kind of metaphor for what was occurring in Europe at that time, a kind of self-eating in which the indigenous culture was excised and replaced by a foreign-born ideology, Christianity mixed with the romanticization of the Roman Empire. After this period of plague and self-cannibalization—the destruction of indigenous knowledge, the appropriation of indigenous art into Christian religious art and architecture, the solidification of the bond between church and state—Europe turned its hunger for human flesh and culture outward, to cannibalize the world through colonialism, the transnational slave trade, capitalism, and industrialized war.
It was within these acts of world-cannibalization that whiteness was invented (Systema Naturae, by Carl Linnaeus, which divided humans into five distinct species was published in 1767). It became a way to make clear who could be the slave owner and who could be the slave, who could be a colonizer and who could be colonized, who was expendable and who wasn’t, who could be consumed and who consumed, a way to define a human. During the Renaissance, as artists and scholars “rediscovered” classical art and texts, as capitalism and colonialism spread outside of Europe, pseudo-scientific concepts of racial hierarchy were also formed. Classical art was seen as more “advanced” (see discussion of Winkleman below) and the values of “humanism” (celebrating the worldly achievements of men, prioritizing reason over belief, valuing the individual over the group) became a noble tradition of Western Europe, dispelling the “illogical” superstition of the Middle Ages. By the mid-1800s the equation of Classical art with whiteness (and thus human-ness) was complete, as can be seen clearly in this illustration from Indigenous Races of the Earth:
The Apollo of Belvedere, the illustration of the “Greek” (i.e. “white”) skull formation, is a Roman marble copy of a Greek statue, rediscovered during the Renaissance. It epitomizes the ideologies of Greek/Roman aesthetics, in particular that beauty was achieved through perfection and that outer beauty was a reflection of spiritual and moral purity. By completely obscuring the ethnic heterogeneity of the Roman empire, which included parts of what is now the Middle East and North Africa (the Severan dynasty originated in modern-day Libya), Western European artists over hundreds of years etched white supremacy into the deepest facets of their visual culture.
In a series of essays (which drew death threats on social media) historian Sarah Bond pointed to the connection between white supremacy and the falsehood that statues from antiquity were pure white marble: they were, in fact, often painted, something that early scholars associated with “barbarism”. The Apollo of Belvedere was held up by 18th century scholars such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who is considered one of the founders of archeology and art history, as an example of perfect human form (and proof that Ancient Greek art was more “advanced” than other art of the time period). And Pieter Camper used ratios derived from the statue to create the “cephalic index” of racial hierarchy, later used by Nazis to support their imaginations of racial superiority. These racist ideas continued in anatomy textbooks used in medical fields through the 20th century.
It is no surprise, then, that when founding the United States, the educated and moneyed white men who formed the first government looked to neoclassical art and architecture to shape the nation’s identity. Thomas Jefferson, a self-taught architect and inventor of “Jeffersonian” neoclassical architecture said that buildings “should be more than things of beauty and convenience, above all they should state a creed.” The architecture of the nation’s capitol directly references the architecture of ancient Greek temples and is filled with frescos, paintings, and sculptures in the neoclassical style. Throughout the country, we see this style repeated in State capitols, government buildings, public parks, banks, universities, and more. Neoclassicism is the style of authority, of power, of money, of the mythology of white dominance over this land. It is also the aesthetics that presides over our public lives. The aesthetics that protects some while carefully alienating others. Who feels proud looking at their statues? Who feels proud walking into their buildings? Who describes them as beautiful: who works to replicate them?
While confederate statues are the most obvious aesthetic affronts to a society that aspires to justice, the landscapes of this country are infested with memorials to white supremacy. We literally look up to it when we walk by statues, move through it when we enter spaces of power and authority. We cannot draw an arbitrary line that says one flavor of white supremacy is unpalatable while the other is excusable.
To return to B. Frank Earnest, whose quote opened this essay—the word “barbarian” comes from antiquity and means, essentially, “everyone who is not us” (all non-Greeks, all non-Romans) and has origins in Proto-Indo-European, literally speaking in a language that cannot be understood. To be a barbarian is to be speaking the language of the outsider, to take up the cause of the marginalized. It means advocating for the destruction of the systems and symbols of white supremacy and intervening within the spaces that these systems and symbols produce. This is a lived, embodied resistance that is inherently threatening, uncomfortable, and sometimes terrifying by design, but necessary to shepherd us through the social transformations essential for the liberation of all people.
Maya Mackrandilal (MFA School of the Art Institute of Chicago, BA University of Virginia) is a transdisciplinary artist and writer based in Los Angles. She is the recipient of an Aunspaugh Fellowship, a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, and was a 2014-2015 HATCH Resident Artist with the Chicago Artists Coalition. Her work has been shown across the country, including a recent show at the Abrons Art Center in New York and a solo show at boundary project space in Chicago. Her essays have been published in The New Inquiry, 60 Inches from Center, and MICE Magazine, among others.