Degree Critical, Spring 2020

Friday 08/14/2020

E. A. Bryant III, A Declaration, 2020.

A Declaration

by E.A. Bryant III, L.P.I. (Class of 2020)

Written July 4, 2020

The earliest monument in the United States of America to suffer an iconoclastic gesture was an equestrian statue of King George III. Originally located in Bowling Green Park in New York City, the lead-cast statue made by Joseph Wilton in 1770 was gilded in gold leaf. According to historian Arthur S. Marks, it was “one-third larger than life, and…stood on a marble pedestal eighteen-feet-high.”[1] In 1776, after the Declaration of Independence was read in New York, then one of the 13 original British colonies, a group of patriots—here referring to those who opposed British rule, and whose rivals were the loyalists—vandalized, beheaded, and dismantled the statue of King George III. After which, they dispatched the fragments to Connecticut, where the metal was melted to produce 42,088 bullets that were then used to wage war against the British. They were quoted as saying, “the lead wherewith this monument was made, is to be run into bullets, to assimilate with the brain of our infatuated adversaries, who, to gain a peppercorn, have lost an empire.”[2]

Although images reifying a society cannot be pulled away without that society suffering a loss, recently, many American statues and monuments are being vandalized and or removed, and the inverse-value of that loss, (the value gained from negation) is still unclear. Like the patriots’ actions, the actions by the protestors belong to the tradition of iconoclasm, “the action of attacking or assertively rejecting cherished beliefs and institutions or established values and practices.” When an individual or group of people no longer uphold a given set of values, their rejection and destruction is often directed at the sculptures and artworks—all images that celebrate or reify that set of values. Iconoclasm is, in simple terms, material-criticism.

Iconoclasm is inherently a radical tradition because it violently critiques orthodoxy. That tradition is why the noses and arms of so many sculptures of Egyptian gods and deities are broken, for instance. In that time and tradition, which is not much different from ours or anyone else’s, those sculptures were regarded as the embodiment of some higher being or idea. In their presence one would adhere to custom, and revere them. When there was no genuflection, and instead a direct attack on the material reification of a series of values, one could describe it as an attempt to disrupt the perceived coherence of the ideas to images, with the desire to replace one or both, image or idea.

The result of the constant adjustment of what it means to be patriotic, or not is confusion. Americans are confused. In essence, the current colloquial usage of patriot is an inversion of its previous, 18th century American meaning and usage. However, it’s currently a synonym for loyalist—such as the supporters of the British monarch during the American Revolutionary War. Before that inversion, the loyalist position sought to establish and maintain a colony for the crown. The current loyalist position seeks to maintain the status quo.

Context shapes the application of such terms as loyalists and patriots. The loyalists of today might also be termed traitors. Still, considering the usage in the 18th century, in the body and mind of the “Indians,” both the patriots and loyalists might have simply been invaders. So, what is to be established by changing the names of terms without decoupling them from their trajectory, the renaming of military bases or removing statues from public spaces? How astonishing would it be to witness a military fort named after Standing Bear, or Frederick Douglass! If one replaced the name tomahawk in tomahawk-missiles with Martin Luther King, would it not be a part of a tradition of nomenclature that perverts or disparages? Without a fundamental change in international relations, those name changes would only pay the eponym the highest insult.

Acts of renaming and rebranding, as described above, belong to another tradition—the tradition of drugging unto inclusion. And although the intoxicated feel like they are now an integral part of the society, they are sadly mistaken. Through the insightful humor and simplicity from his 1996 comedy special Back in Town, comedian George Carlin cautions that renaming is meant to appease the masses (civilians), when he says:

…Israeli murderers are called commandos; Arab commandos are called terrorists. Contra killers are called freedom fighters. Well if crime-fighters fight crime, and firefighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?

To blindly champion the euphemistic terms is to fight the freedom of thought. The material truth behind the words is important. The elites within American society know the truth, they must know, for they have dressed it up with grandiloquence and grammar; the poor know the truth, because they are too often its material composition.

Still, is it possible to participate in a radical tradition like that of the 18th century American patriots; is there a space for that level of radical action when those acts today have been deemed criminal by a recent executive order? Part of that order states:

It is the policy of the United States to prosecute to the fullest extent permitted under Federal law, and as appropriate, any person or any entity that destroys, damages, vandalizes, or desecrates a monument, memorial, or statue within the United States or otherwise vandalizes government property.[3]

Perhaps the terrorists, persons who use unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims, have it right: the middle class are civilians—soft targets receiving absolute concepts, and where law prohibits the decoupling of concept and image, there must be terror.

So, how do we deal with history, with a record of what has taken place? Justice, injustice or a misrecognition of either of the two, compounded over time, has a real effect on how culture is read and how people perceive themselves within it, and perceive others through it.

The terror deployed for the establishment of the new nation of the United States of America was deployed for much more than the ushering in of new nomenclature to describe the land. It was about a radical change in material conditions of the settlers: patriotloyalist, and by extension, “Indians.” Mere renaming, on the other hand, gives civilians a feeling of being a member of the elite, insofar as they are allowed to engage with the marquee. But, unless they change the material conditions and function of the architecture, it’s nothing more than recuperation. They will never be like the elites, (affection aside) nor are they like the poor, who are perhaps the best of these two groups that have the freedom to say what they mean.

Many citizens of the United States of America are contending with a perennial state of recuperation, which refers to the process of overcoming historical injustices, and recovering from a spiral in social inequities. Take for example the two previous uses of “Indian” versus American Indigenous peoples, the nomenclature “Indian” is a testament to the stupidity of Columbus, while American Indigenous peoples is recuperative—a process that, in spite of cycles of action, is still inconclusive. This state is a precarious condition brought about by champions of equality through their will, determination and labor. Put simply, the byproduct of that determination participates in a discourse of the absence of value perceived or attributed to Black life, through a discourse that intends to center the value of Black life. That value reproduces an equitable presence of Black people and by extension, people of color in all sectors of society, and under conditions of merit that is a good in the world. However, if one suspends the good intention of such meditation, and what is to be attained for a moment, the position of said people may quickly be described as precarious and tenuous.

Like the state of recuperation, it’s naturally fragile. When Blacks or people of color only arise in conversations of oppression, which one could say is antithetical to a healthy disposition, they might inherently, though unconsciously, be associated with that which is deficient. I am not saying that equity need not be championed, but I am convinced that at some point, to argue inequity’s demerits, is simply an extraneous act.

So, in 1776, not only did the patriots tear down the statue of King George III, but they also produced bullets from it that would be used to permanently change the condition of their lives. They rendered an aesthetic tool of reification into the base material that could be used to combat loyalists. This pulverizing of material to change living conditions, almost as an exercise of alchemy, is thus far absent in 2020’s iconoclastic gestures. The premature celebrations resulting from recuperation, deliver a temporary sense of triumph, yet equate to an “enforced humiliating subjectivation, where the… [Black person] is doubly humiliated.”[4] For instance, when Blacks are within “the discourse” as the sad object of oppression presented, they are not present as fully emancipated peoples able to produce a life, that is able to contend with the antagonistic realities of the world, one of which is racism, another of which is poverty, another class, and gender, and so on…not to mention what resides on the extreme opposite end of these realities. Perhaps, the subjectivity in recuperation, at least one step behind the struggle that it is to be human, and two steps behind a question of what it means to be human, just might not be the desired state of being one wishes to declare.

 

In all sincerity,

E. A. Bryant III, L.P.I.
July 4, 2020

 

[1] Arthur S. Marks, “The Statue of King George III in New York and the Iconology of Regicide,” The American Art Journal, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Summer, 1981), 61-82.

[2] Alexander J. Wall, The Equestrian Statue of George III, and the Pedestrian Statue of William Pitt (New York, 1920: The New York Historical Society), 36-57.

[3] “Executive Order 13933 of June 26, 2020, Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence,” June 26, 2020, Federal Register (2020): 40081-40084. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2020-07-02/pdf/2020-14509.pdf

[4] “Slavoj Žižek: For A Left That Dares to Speak Its Name,” YouTube video, 2:03:37, Posted by: Institute For Radical Imagination, October 18, 2019, https://youtu.be/qxz4zkO_ce4.

 


 

E. A. Bryant III, L.P.I., artist and writer, earned MFAs from both Yale University, School of Art, with a focus in critical theory, new media, and printmaking, and the School of Visual Arts in Art Writing, with a focus on art and society’s relationship to nature, molestation, conservation, and homelessness.