Number of offensive statues in NYC could be never-ending, art history experts warn

Any review of the city’s “symbols of hate,” as Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for, could be never-ending, and to remove statues without understanding their context is “ignorant,” art history experts said.

Following the violent riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, de Blasio declared a 90-day review of monuments on city property. Other politicians and community members have responded with their suggestions for prime candidates, which range from the city’s own Lee homages to the always controversial statue of Christopher Columbus.

The mayor has since clarified that the goal of the review is to establish a standard policy to be applied when concerns are raised about monuments. He cautioned critics not to jump to conclusions about the potential removal of some statues, adding that another option could be to place plaques near them to explain their complex history.

“There’s more than one way to address this,” he said at an unrelated news conference on Monday. “To folks who are concerned, I would say, ‘don’t prejudge.’ ” 

Still, de Blasio tweeted that a plaque along Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes for Philippe Pétain would be “one of the first we remove,” and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has since called for the removal of a statue in East Harlem of Dr. J. Marion Sims, who made advancements in surgery by experimenting on enslaved women, as well as the Columbus monument. The speaker also noted the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant in Riverside Park should be reviewed because some believe the former general and president was anti-Semitic, a spokesperson told CBS New York. 

“We’re getting into the realm of ridiculous,” Michele Bogart, an art history professor at Stony Brook University, said of the growing list of potentially offensive statues. “If we removed everything that is troublesome, we would be left with nothing.”

Two plaques honoring Lee outside a church in Brooklyn were taken down on Aug. 16, just days after Bishop Lawrence Provenzano learned about them for the first time. That same day, Bronx Community College announced plans to remove the busts of Lee and Stonewall Jackson in it Hall of Great Americans.

The reactionary nature of these decisions concerns Bogart, who stressed the importance of understanding the labor and negotiation involved in putting up statues around the city.

“We can’t address them as if they were created in the present day,” Bogart said. “Politicians are leaping on this issue of racial hatred without really knowing anything about public sculpture at the time. They’re going into it in an ignorant way.”

Another example of works that could be seen as controversial are the “Four Continents” sculptures outside the National Museum of the American Indian, which were built in the early 1900s and depict women from Asia, America, Europe and Africa, Bogart said. 

“The statues were made based on assumptions about people at the time,” she said, explaining that the statues of Asians and Africans reflect beliefs that they were “of lesser stature.” But instead of taking them down, the museum uses them to educate, she said. 

Reviewers could also look at a piece like “Cleopatra’s Needle,” an ancient Egyptian stone pillar that stands in Central Park, near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and find it concerning because it was built by slaves, said Sean Khorsandi, the executive director of Landmark West, a nonprofit that works to get landmark status for historical districts and buildings on the Upper West Side.

“At what point do we stop?” Khorsandi asked. “We can’t just ignore or erase the history that makes us uncomfortable.”

The purpose of the statues being discussed, including the one of Columbus, was not to antagonize anyone, Khorsandi added.

“They were not intended to agitate or invoke harm on anyone,” he said.

And to some, Columbus is an iconic symbol. The “statue in Columbus Circle does not represent the explorer, it represents the experience of the Italian immigrant population,” said State Sen. Diane Savino, a Democrat representing parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn, who attended a rally on Aug. 24. She and other politicians argued that Columbus should not even be on the list of those reviewed. 

For Khorsandi and Bogart, more education and public discussion about the monuments in the city should be the solution when there are concerns about them. 

“The works are under fire because of recent events. People normally don’t think about them otherwise,” Bogart said.

De Blasio is expected to announce the members of the panel that will review the public art in the coming days. It remains unclear if the review will lead to changes in the city’s charter, which currently says the city’s Public Design Commission has oversight over public statues and monuments.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Sen. Savino’s political party. She is a Democrat.