Sunday, November 5, 2017

Red paint

At the front entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City sits a statue of Teddy Roosevelt astride a horse, with an African American man walking on one side of him and an Indigenous man on the other. The rider is in full military uniform while the men on either side of him are partially unclothed. A little more than a week ago, someone spattered red paint at the base of the statue, which has long been criticized as "a condescending expression of a power relation."

A group called Decolonize This Place released a fascinating statement in the aftermath. "Now the statue is bleeding," the group stated. "We did not make it bleed. It is bloody at its very foundation. This is not an act of vandalism. It is a work of public art and an act of applied art criticism. We have no intent to damage a mere statue. The true damage lies with patriarchy, white supremacy, and settler-colonialism embodied by the statue."

In other recent acts of protest, red paint was daubed on the hands of the Christopher Columbus statue in Central Park, and the word "racist" was scrawled across the base of the statue of a doctor, J. Marion Sims, who conducted gynecological experiments on enslaved women without anesthesia.

The mayor has appointed a panel of artists, historians, preservationists and activists to come up with a plan for monuments that represent a history of subjugation and hate. New Yorkers were also asked to share their opinions in an online survey. The paint of Teddy Roosevelt has since been removed, and the hands of Christopher Columbus have been washed clean. Most locals, when asked how they felt about the red paint protest, were not fans of the action. "I didn't even know what this statue was, to be honest," one man told a Gothamist reporter. "I've walked by it a dozen times. Now I can see why that's offensive for some people, but I think there are better ways to protest a statue than chucking red paint all over it, right?" 

So what do you think: Reprehensible act of vandalism or socially constructive art criticism? Something else entirely?

Out of respect for the journalists at Gothamist who reported on these events, and whose workplace was shuttered overnight by a billionaire owner disgruntled that they'd voted a week ago to unionize, I'd love to hear any and all thoughts on the red paint activism and/or the historical monuments issue.

1: Scott Heins/ Gothamist
2: Scott Heins/ Gothamist
3: Christen Clifford/ Gothamist
4: Howard Smmons/ New York Daily News


  1. It is a valid question being asked about some of the monuments. But not sure about the way they are going about it-red paint and all. Constructive dialogue is the way to go. Just a thought. Greetings!

  2. There is nothing as eye and mind and heart-grabbing as the sight of blood, even if it is symbolic blood.
    I started listening to a novel about the life of Beryl Markham last week and it was fine, not badly written but it was taking place in Kenya and every word of it was involved with how the English who had taken land which they had absolutely no right to were trying to make their lives there. I could not continue to listen as the absence of the sin of the whites loomed so large. I am still being haunted by yet one more example of how incredibly vast the sense of entitlement of whites has affected this world and its people throughout history and how we continue to act as if it were just the natural order of things.
    So. Yes. Blood protest. It is, at the very least, appropriate and also, I agree- art.

  3. These acts are meant to educate and in these cases that has been done for me. I knew nothing about the statues or the doctor and now I do. I think that’s a good thing.

  4. Just reading Ms. Moon's comment made me realize I have nothing else to add. She said it all with great compassion and eloquence. Thank you both.

  5. I don't think there is a simple answer. (Is there ever?) On one hand, the history portrayed by many statues is incomplete and slanted. On the other hand, is destroying or defacing them going to advance people's understanding? Is the painting in this case an artistic criticism? We don't all agree on the definition of art at the best of times, so it's hard to say. I would prefer to see more discussion on the issues; on the other hand, when there is an imbalance of power, maybe radical action is needed to get people's attention. On the other hand, great leaders such as Martin Luther King chose different kinds of radical action - peaceful ones - to make a point. On the other hand, leaders like MLK come along very seldom and while we should all try to be more like these great leaders, we mostly fall short.

    In other words, I don't know. My cousin lived with us for a year when we were both in high school, and after listening to me say "on the other hand" over and over in any discussion we had, he joked "how many hands do you have, anyway?" and it's true, I am what some might call wishy-washy in my opinions.

  6. I say, yes, to the blood and the resistance and to smashing the patriarchy without violence. I say yes with great fatigue, though -- frankly, I'm sick of the whole shebang and need a break. I agree with Mary -- those of us who are white need to sit back and listen.

  7. Fascinating, thank you. Here in Ireland there's a tradition of subverting, defacing and even blowing up public art that represented an oppressive colonial power, or more recently monuments to an oppressive and abusive church. I agree with Ms Moon that the blood red is an incredibly powerful symbol and a very clever visual and thoughtful subversion of the narrative the statues were made to represent.
    I wonder is there a place in NYC for something like the empty plinth in Travalgar Square in London, where contemporary artists have an opportunity to respond to and challenge the 'history' on display around it?

  8. The Gothamist situation is a crime.

    As for the statues, I think it's right to re-evaluate them in the same way that Confederate statues are being re-evaluated in the South. The red paint on Roosevelt seems harmless enough and certainly made a point. I think it was an effective, even artistic, protest. I don't know that Sims statue at all -- or the story behind it. Is it in Central Park?

  9. Mary said it beautifully.

  10. Artists are the teachers - they show us things that we fail to see with our own eyes. America was founded on shed blood and the flow has never stopped.

    I applaud the act, whether vandalism or art or anything else. It was brave. Considering that all of these statues were conceived by, executed by and installed by men, blood on their hands or at their feet seems totally appropriate.

  11. I think these protests and red paint jolt us awake as reminder of what our history was really like, and to the uneducated it brings it to light.

  12. I agree with Ms. Moon, especially with the part about white people just listening for a change. Also think the red paint was a very effective statement, and apparently one that did no permanent damage. These days that can be important legally, and also because it can become a distraction from the point being made.

  13. Ironic really that we gleefully toppled Statues in other Countries that represented oppressive Leaders once their regimes were overthrown and yet we as a Nation will not equally topple over these offensive Statues which represent equally oppressive and historically shameful atrocities... just sayin'... quite the double standard IMO. I think they should be protested and the red paint at least drew attention to the real reasons behind why it offends... it's not as if the red paint did any permanent damage.

  14. I think that people who pass by will no longer be able to pretend they don't notice the wrong being portrayed and heretofore accepted, and that's a very good thing. If the powers that be want to avoid something like this happening in the future, then they should change the plaque to acknowledge the true history.