My wife paints now mostly. In the past she’s done installation art, sculptural and environmental work. Sometimes I’ll press her to interpret her work for me and she’ll remind me that this isn’t her job in the end. She works with intention; but there is a dimension to experiencing her art that is my responsibility, the responsibility of anyone who chooses to engage with it.
This concept turns in this rock tumbler skull of mine as I stop to consider the controversy over Confederate monuments, weigh the argument that these are in essence artistic expressions — of culture and heritage, history. Some argue that we need to retain the markers of history. But to credit this argument is at the same time to beg that question of interpretation. That something is emblematic of a heritage doesn’t yet convince me of its value, its rightful place. That question of art’s intention and how we complete it comes forward.
That summer three years back now the controversy seemed at its worst, most violent, tragic, and I had occasion to visit Stone Mountain in Georgia. My wife and I were visiting family in the area and my brother-in-law suggested it might be worthwhile to see it “while it was still there.” Stone Mountain is what some call “The Confederate Mount Rushmore.” The bas-relief on Stone Mountain’s side measures more than an acre-and-a-half in area, cuts as deep as 400 feet into the sheer face of stone. It depicts Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert. E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, all on horseback.
Our visit came only weeks after the confrontation in Charlottesville. It was in the immediate aftermath of those events that the Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representative had called for the removal of the sculpture at Stone Mountain. “The monument had no purpose other than celebration of racism, terror & division when carved in 1915,” she stated. “Stone Mountain’s edifice remains a blight on our state and should be removed.”
Symbols of the Confederacy had been coming down throughout the South. Dylan Roof’s murder of nine black church-goers in 2015 — while wrapping himself in the imagery and ideology of the “stars and bars” had made it harder to revere the old “heritage” without also recalling its founding core principle.
Jefferson Davis’s Vice President, Alexander Stevens stated that principle back in 1861: “Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.“ ”
The monument at Stone Mountain is situated in a state park of more than 3200 acres about 15 miles outside of Atlanta. The park offers woodland camping sites, hiking trails and a lake. A vintage train takes you on a circuit around the mountain; a tram takes visitors straight to the top. ‘Dinosaur Explore’ theme park offers play structures for the kids. My sense of the place when we first arrived was of an amusement park more than a memorial site. We made our way past concession stands selling souvenirs and snack food, people with small children waiting in line for the different attractions.
Make your way past all that through a thin stand of trees and you come to a broad hillside lawn. At the crest of the hill to one side is a visitor center and museum. At the foot is a cordoned off stage area, the vintage rail line passes through there and there is the carved mountainside. The slope forms a natural amphitheater; Davis, Lee and Jackson stage center.
The visitor center hallway galleries feature large photographs of the sculpture at various stages of progress; workers hung from the mountainside, wielding their tools, dwarfed by the scale of the stone figures they work on.
The day of our visit two short films played on a loop in a half-circle shaped theater space. The first, entitled “The Battle for Georgia” opens with the familiar mournful fiddle music playing, the sober voice of narrator Hal Holbrook intones:
“The date, April 12th, 1861, the sound of gun fire cuts the spring air. It rolled across the water from a little island off the coast of South Carolina, Fort Sumter. In the bustling city of Atlanta the dogwoods splashed white over the landscape. Farmers talked of bumper crops from King Cotton. No sounds of gunfire here. But before many more springs the thundering echoes of Sumter would roll across the red clay hills of Georgia. And when the thunder was finally silenced a history would remain written with the lives and sacrifices of gallant souls… on both sides.”
All this is voiced over as that famous visual documentary technique, the ‘Ken Burns effect’ scans across daguerreotypes of soldiers posing in uniform, scenes of war damage, women in hoop skirts. Briefly in that opening sequence, just as Holbrook mentions “farmers” and “King Cotton,” there is a four-second-long pan across an image of some slaves working a field.
That is the only appearance of black persons in the entirety of the 24-minute film. The word ‘slavery’ is never mentioned.
The war is recounted as something happened upon Georgia — inexplicably, bad weather come rolling across the water in April 1861. There is no mention of the state’s Declaration of Secession earlier that year. Instead “The Battle for Georgia” recounts tales of gallant daring-do by the underdog Confederates doing battle with “federal” troops. Atlanta falls. Sherman marches to the sea. The film ends with Holbrook accounting the property damage and casualties, then a quick pivot to some uplift about sacrifice, how “the spirit that wrote Georgia’s history continues to shape the destiny of her future.”
In the census of 1860 the population of Georgia was just over a million souls. 462,198 of those were slaves, the second highest slave population in the country, 44% of the total population of the state.
The second film showing that day at the Stone Mountain Visitor Center Theater was focused on the making of the monument itself: birth of the idea back in 1915 fifty years after the war ended, the scale of the undertaking, the stops and starts in the more than fifty years it took to see the project finally realized. It was noted with some pride that the first sculptor hired for the project, Gutzon Borglum went on in his career to sculpt Mount Rushmore.
Borglum was actually responsible for the eventual massive scale the Stone Mountain sculpture. When originally offered the commission by Helen Plane and the United Daughters of the Confederacy they had hoped to see a 20-foot high bust of General Robert E. Lee set into the mountain. Borglum accepted the project, but advised his patronesses, “Ladies, a twenty foot head of Lee on that mountainside would look like a postage stamp on a barn door.”
It was Borglum who envisioned, not only Lee, but also Davis and Jackson — and their horses. In fact, his first ambition was that these three would be leading a whole legion on horseback across the mountain face.
Not mentioned in the film was Borglum’s willingness to include a Ku Klux Klan altar in his plans for the memorial. Ms. Plane of the UDC had written the sculptor requesting this early on in their dealings. “I feel it is due to the KKK that saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain.”
Borglum left the project in 1928, not on the best of terms, the work handed to another sculptor, Henry Augustus Lukeman. Borglum would later comment on his successor: “Every able man in America refused it, and thank God, every Christian. They got a Jew.”
Step out of the visitor center, back onto the broad sloping lawn that faces the monument on a warm summer evening, you’ll find the place starting to fill with people. Families pack in lawn chairs, blankets, coolers. They’ve come for the Lasershow Spectacular in Moutainvision®. Little kids run about with plastic light wands that will change color on signal through the course of the show. The crowd isn’t here for some sober ceremonial about the past. This is a state park on a beautiful summer night. From somewhere down in the stage area a young women is hollering over the PA system. She seems torn between wanting to whip up excitement for the laser show and trying to urge patience as everyone waits for the sun to set. We’re reminded several times it’s not too late to purchase a light wand. Music is playing loud, a pop mix, everything from vintage Elvis to C+C Music Factory.
The audience is diverse: black and white, younger families with small children, older folks like myself. A family of Indian immigrants settles into lawn chairs further down the hill in front of us. The mother wears a beautiful sari; immediately in front of us a group of sisters and their small children, a pile of five or six cousins, all dancing to the music, reveling in the treats that keep emerging from a picnic basket. Their ancestry, as evidenced in their skin color, their statures and facial features, is from somewhere in Central America. They could be Aztecs or Mayans travelled here through time, I tell myself. They are symbols to me, just then. Not merely a family.
The PA seems to have played Pharrel’s ‘Happy” for maybe the third time, loud. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law are soft-spoken people. My niece and my wife talk, I catch only fragments. In my own little space I entertain myself observing the dynamic at play among the little Mayan cousins. The youngest one is probably four years old. She has dark eyes that evince a penetrating study of everything she sees; the candy, her cousins dancing, people all around, her grandmother’s careful ministrations of pizza slice and sips of soft drink from a cup with a straw.
Borglum was right about the scale. Even at their size, the three figures and their horses don’t really command the place. For all the artistic intention, the crowd around me is not disposed to the memory of Confederate heroes. The monument, at least for that moment, is little more than a locating marker, a television test pattern or a bullseye. As night falls thousands watch the side of the mountain in anticipation: a blank screen, an unpainted canvas, an empty sky.
With it dark enough at last, the Lasershow Spectacular finally begins and with the US flag projected across the face of the mountain. On the sound system Lee Greenwood sings that he is proud where at least he knows he is free. An announcer cuts in and asks audience members who have served in the different branches of the military to stand in turn and be applauded. The show starts in earnest with a burst of fireworks, light comes up briefly on the three Confederates, trumpets blare and the decibel level increases; the lasers begin.
As it turns out the laser light show doesn’t really light the sculpture; the three dimensional reality of the bas-relief is inconsequential. A few times in the course of the show the stone surface seems to become directly illuminated, but mostly it’s a trick of the light at play; two dimensional cartoons, the lines drawn with white laser light are drawn into the darkness.
The cartoon’s main character is this gnome-like little boy with a backwards baseball cap. The overarching narrative conceit for the show is that he’s entered a contemporary library with books, music cd’s, dvd’s and magazines. We are witness to his mind’s eye as he encounters different entertainments and his imagination expands into the night. Most of it is silly pop-culture fun.
Of course this library has a history section.
About forty minutes into the show the boy opens a book plainly marked ‘History’ and the place goes dark. A snare drum sounds a military tattoo and Elvis Presley starts in on a mawkish rendition of “Dixie.” The laser lights trace outlines of the mountain’s stone figures into cartoon shapes as Elvis quivers — look away, look away, Dixieland. At that point the laser light line drawing of General Lee and his horse becomes animated and breaks away from the other figures to charge across the mountain. Then all three of them are at full gallop, Lee and Jackson with their swords drawn. Elvis transitions to Glory, Glory Hallelujah, His truth is marching on.
There are a couple of battle scenes played out. Jackson falls wounded. The focus is upon Lee then. His horse breaks from a full gallop into a sad saunter as the grim toll of the war weighs down in montage. The Elvis medley shifts tone to his sad slow singing — all my trials, Lord, soon be over. There’s a close up of General Lee. Sorrowful thought passes across his cartoon face, he draws his sword and breaks it over his knee. Two shards fly off turning in the night, transforming into separate maps of North and South, the two halves of the country at last joining in the trajectory of Lee’s wise gesture. It’s Glory Hallelujah again, the big finish. The laser light cartoons arrive back upon the monument; Davis, Lee, and Jackson gallop back into place and doff their hats to assume the pose of the sculpture. Then fireworks go off and illuminate the actual stone.
This pantomime Civil War history is little more than about three minutes in all. The nation rejoined, the show goes on from there: more montage patriotism; the military, first responders and astronauts. Toward the end there is a fleeting distant view of the Lincoln Memorial. An extended version of the National Anthem brings it all to close with a dazzling and bombastic fire works finale.
Most of the Confederate statues at issue these days do not date to the Civil War era itself or even its immediate aftermath. Rather they were erected at about the time the Stone Mountain sculpture was first conceived, fifty and sixty years after the war. It is argued this public art wasn’t meant to mark the Civil War or the searing sacrifice — those who bore the burden, as Lincoln phrased it. Rather these were intended as rebuttals, in stone and in defiantly chosen place names, to the indignities of Reconstruction — Negro domination and carpetbag rule, as Ms. Plane and the Daughters of The Confederacy described it. A full fifty years past the war and Emancipation, these were statements about power and predominance — a white power elite still prevailing in the South; these were markers of mastery —less about Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, or Stonewall Jackson than about a certain being named Jim Crow.
On Thanksgiving Night in 1915 a group of fifteen “charter members” gathered at the top of Stone Mountain and burned a wooden cross. They meant their ceremony to mark a rebirth, the foundation of an invisible empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, The Atlanta Constitution reported at the time. The group aimed to take an active role in the betterment of mankind, according to a statement they shared for the report. The rites incident to the founding of the order were most interesting and the occasion will be remembered long by the participants, the story concluded.
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia, Martin Luther King said nearly fifty years later, 1963. Work wasn’t yet complete on the enormous stone carving on the side of that mountain.
I don’t suspect the crowd that turned out to watch the Lasershow Spectacular in Mountainvision® of harboring racist or treasonous notions. The themes that night were pride of place, patriotism. Service and sacrifice were celebrated alongside some sillier cartoons, some local heroes, and some nationalistic sentiment. Though we never discussed it directly in those terms, I suspect this is the aspect my brother-in-law wanted me to see while it was still there. We left while the final fireworks were still going off, made our way through the trees in the dark to where we parked. We wanted to beat the traffic.
A while back I attended an event at a library where one historian was interviewing another historian about a book he’d written about a famous historian. I’d brought my college student son along, a history major. There came that point in the evening when the author and his interviewer were to take questions from the audience and a woman posed hers on Confederate monuments. Can we — should we — simply erase our history by taking them down? My son and I both rolled our eyes.
The author answered that he was someone who researched and wrote in words in books and he urged that the works in stone be treated the same way he wanted his own scholarship to be treated: never final or definitive, informed by past understanding, patiently awaiting the next understanding, wholly willing to be displaced by it in due time.
Heather Heyer died when a lawful public process for moving a monument from prominence was greeted with virulent protest including threats of armed resistance. She was there in Charlottesville to counter-protest the attempted intimidation. I just thought I would note that fact.
Maybe it’s my own special species of servility, but I can nearly forgive the desire to forget or selectively remember what monuments are meant to mark, just as I can sympathize with that instinct to forcefully erase their affront. Much of the classical sculpture we now consider as spare studies in stone, homages to the human form as some kind of ideal were originally painted in vivid color. They were lurid mannequins really. As paint fell away with time and weather different meanings became attached, or maybe revealed. Vandals played a role in the change as well.
But then I think of racists rushing to the defense of their totems and I think of those who would like to remember history differently, selectively, in order to tell more comfortable stories about our past. I think of the light being used to draw a two dimensional cartoon in the noisy darkness.
Ignorance and selective blindness to actual history may indeed be one form of cultural expression. It’s just that it is one that requires an answer.
I remember talking with my wife about this piece when I first set about writing it. I told her how I was unsure of it arriving at any clear conclusion, coming down with force one side of an issue debate. I said I didn’t want to condemn or accuse, so much as I wanted to grieve and pray.
Then there’s that little dark-eyed girl dancing in the company of her cousins in the summer night, her grace and self-possession, her avid and innocent attention to everything — everything last thing.