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Commentary | New Orleans and the Folly of Gutting Art History

The New Orleans Mayor wants to tear down artistic historical monuments to please a vapid culture of political correctness.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

We live in an era or narcissism and deliberate stupidity, and it’s difficult — nearly impossible –for art to survive and flourish in such an environment unless sensible and informed intellects step in to restore some level of competence.

Solid understanding of socio-political issues ends up smothered by endless partisan shouting matches. A genuine grasp of history and culture is demeaned and ridiculed as haughty by those without the intellect or patience to grasp complicated, real world issues. They can only absorb news from TMZ and express their opinions in 140 characters or less. To paraphrase the great author Harper Lee, they are people “with minds like empty rooms.”

It is wise to expect this daily salute to mindlessness from the social media obsessed and vapid worshipers of cheap reality television. They would consider a walk in a gallery a waste of time and avoid books as though the covers were made of poison oak. But, we should not accept such short-sighted dim-wittery from any elected official, including New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. While once embraced with hope as a possible cog in the New Orleans rebuilding machine, His Honor has allowed his stewardship of the Crescent City to devolve into a practical failure disguised by a gauze-thin veil of politically correct, populist buffoonery.

As a travel writer, I am a frequent visitor to New Orleans. It’s a place I care about a great deal. It’s a city of art, culture and history and an entirely unique American gem. In many ways, it is the ideal city to demonstrate the strength of multicultural diversity as British, French, Spanish and American influences and religions blended a richly nuanced racial melting pot that would not exist if any one of those ingredients were ever removed.

In the wake of violence and racial tensions across the United States, and specifically the citing of a Confederate Flag by one angry lunatic this summer, Landrieu now campaigns aggressively to remove any remnants of America’s Confederate history from New Orleans, including the statue and monument in Lee Circle outside the French Quarter near the National World War II Museum. The 90-foot marble column and figure of Confederate General Robert E. Lee came to New Orleans in 1884 – almost 30 years after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.

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After pitching the idea of destroying Lee Circle and threatening other related city venues, Landrieu ran into a major backlash by those valuing New Orleans art and history more than he. The mayor then proposed 60 days of discussion to consider the matter. As is often the case in modern government, discussion yielded nothing. The issue remains open and just as hotly controversial as when Landrieu coughed it up months ago.

To the mind that gains its wisps of empty knowledge from flippant faux-news on Comedy Central, Lee was a Confederate general who fought for his beloved slavery and now carries blame for anyone who commits a racial crime in 21st century America. So, tear down the monument. Period. That was easy. No thinking required.

Of course, President Lincoln originally offered command of the Union Army to Lee as the war began. That seems an odd choice for the Great Emancipator if Lee was the crazed Klansman he must’ve been. Is it possible Lee fought to protect his friends and family in Virginia instead of out of some racial hatred? I suppose that’s all too elaborate a take. Start blowing up granite.

The fact that Lee openly expressed a total rejection of slavery, and the reality that his wife worked to free slaves, never enter into consideration because they would require some modicum of research beyond merely thinking and saying what feels most conveniently comfortable in a gut full of smug.

Lee was a soldier called on by his home Commonwealth to fight in a vast economic, socio-political conflict. He fulfilled what he thought was his duty, regardless of how history sees him. For better or worse, Lee’s decisions, and those of anyone involved in the Civil War, are woven into the fabric of New Orleans and our country. How our ancestors faced those times and evolved with them defines what this country is today. And, the art produced during that time (and since) to explore and commemorate that definition is precious and should be preserved — not threatened with demolition because of passing whims and controversies.

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Unfortunately, in a city still facing a racial divide and ongoing economic problems, a failing mayor saw an opportunity to score cheap political points by pandering to ignorance. By proposing to remove the Lee statue and any Confederate remnant in the city, he looks to please a vocal, though miserably misinformed minority of politically correct fools looking for cheap fixes to complex problems.

Upon my visits to New Orleans, I talk to its people. Their city continues to make an inspiring recovery from Hurricane Katrina, but problems remain. To quiet the city’s unrest with his performance, Landrieu looks to distract citizens angry over current conditions with this empty handwringing over Confederate iconology.

New Orleans is under-policed. Private sector French Quarter businesses have to band together to take care of basic infrastructure issues that the city ignores. The Big Easy continues to recover from Katrina thanks to private sector investment, unassisted and even hindered by intrusive governmental showboating. In the face of all this, Landrieu is the phony Wizard in the Emerald City, spouting platitudes while ignorance prevails around him. “Pay no attention to the man behind City Hall! I’m going to knock some statues down!”

The history of the American South – from settlement by multiple countries and cultures, to the age of slavery, to the Civil War, to the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction, to the Civil Rights Movement to Katrina – is marked by victories and defeats, racial tensions and reconciliations, inspiration and tragedy. To recognize only the victories and erase any signs of the struggles cheapen the legacy of the men and women who fought to better their community. Such acts deny who we are — as Lincoln said, “Warts and all.”

Once Lee is gone with any other semblance of Civil War times, I assume we’ll wait for another political crisis and then look to rename New Orleans streets as city founding fathers Bienville and Iberville arrived on the Mississippi in the 18th Century with slaves attending them. Then again, if we look away and occupy our minds with drivel, maybe that bit of history can be washed away, too. 

What sad level of intellect believes that denying history erases it from the fabric of a community? What childish delusion of convenience thinks removing the sight of something means it never existed or, in fact, doesn’t continue to have some influence on the present day? The answer to both questions wants to park a wrecking ball in the middle of Lee Circle, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Worst of all, in the rush to expunge anything that makes anyone remotely uncomfortable (often a prime component of fine art work), the idea that an artist (Alexander Doyle) spent a considerable portion of his life and creative energy designing and creating the monument in Lee Circle never enters the discussion.

Getting rid of a statue because it makes some people uneasy or angry is an act of blindness and bitterness that would cheapen the city of New Orleans and the American culture it feeds along thee bayou. Before you support such an act, consider the art or symbols you value and hope that they never get tagged as inconvenient by some festering crisis or modern hypersensitivity.

You would hope we all have the collective wisdom to see the cynical emptiness of such an act. Sadly, all New Orleans has is a mayor looking to keep the useful idiots quiet for a while by hiding the crayons.

Photos by John Scott Lewinski