Durham County

Are confederate statues considered art, or history worth preserving?

Beyond the debate over what Confederate-themed statues represent, there’s another issue to consider: Are they art?

It’s not a new question, dating back well before controversy over their placement in public places exploded with last weekend’s protests in Charlottesville, Va. Monday night, protestors in Durham toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier.

In 2010, the North Carolina Historical Commission published a study on memorials at the state Capitol in Raleigh featuring pointed criticism of the Civil War pieces from John W. Coffey, who is the North Carolina Museum of Art curator of American and modern art.

“Judged solely as sculpture…the statuary on Union Square is largely an undistinguished lot,” Coffey wrote.

Of the towering “To Our Confederate Dead” monument at the foot of Hillsborough Street, Coffey wrote that it “is impressive only in its height” with figures that are “generic, off-the-shelf, frozen in descriptive poses.”

Trevor Schoonmaker, chief curator at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, agreed that such descriptions apply to most statues commemorating the Confederacy.

“You can argue that any sculpture is art in some way, but it’s a loose argument,” Schoonmaker said Tuesday. “I don’t know that these statues are worthy of preservation as art objects so much as historical objects – made to preserve a lost cause, a lost war. They weren’t made with great artistic intent, but with political intent. And intent matters in this case.”

As for intent, timing plays a part in that, too. “To Our Confederate Dead” on Hillsborough Street is less a relic of the Civil War than of the Jim Crow era of segregation, erected in 1897. That’s more than three decades after the war’s end.

The statue that was taken down in Durham went up even later, in 1924.

“Look at any memorial or monument, and it’s always more about the time it was put up than the time it celebrates,” said Catherine Bishir, an architecture historian at NC State libraries. “As long as you can see when a monument was done and who did it, you have a clue what it’s all about.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi