A few days ago I wrote about a recent artistic campaign on the streets of my hometown, Sofia, during which the local artist Erka put up seven temporary statues of women around the city to bring awareness to the fact that there are no monuments of historic women anywhere in Bulgaria’s capital. As I was thinking about the project, I let myself peek into a few of the comment sections of the articles on the topic (always a bad idea, but I couldn’t resist). They were filled with all of the ridiculousness and sexism one could expect from a comment section, with 95 percent of them way more offensive than anything I am willing to repeat here. There were some truly original arguments in the remaining five percent of the comments, my favorite coming from a guy wondering why women were upset over the lack of female monuments, given the plethora of female mannequins in store windows (this definitely gets an A for originality despite its F for social awareness). The second most original critique to the Monument #1 project, however, came not from the comments of those readers feeling victimized by the initiative, but from the pages of the Guardian.
Jonathan Jones – an art critic writing for the British publication – felt uniquely qualified to give us all a lesson in feminist expression, proclaiming the efforts to create permanent monuments of historic women in Bulgaria’s capital unnecessary for the feminist cause. Five days into Erka’s temporary installation, Jones wrote a piece titled “Feminism Doesn’t Need More Female Statues – It Needs Political Action“. In it he praised the artist’s work or, more accurately, praised the transitory nature of the work. However, he criticized the campaign to build permanent female monuments in Sofia, explaining that statues are inherently anachronistic and marginal in the social consciousness, making “a splash when they are inaugurated” but later moving towards “dull familiarity”. The article’s title suggests that Jones thinks political action is more pressing for feminism than the building of female statues, although the author does not clarify what he considers meaningful forms of or catalysts for such action. He simply draws the line between an impactful and a useless artistic political statement at the permanence of the final product – a temporary installation makes a powerful political statement, but a permanent one will “spoil it”, because people only talk about monuments for a few weeks after they are built.
That argument is confusing for several reasons. Firstly, it suggests that acknowledging someone’s accomplishments though art is unnecessary, unless we can prove that people will be paying close attention to the work product for a long period of time. The question then becomes – how do we test for this, before commemorating anyone in any artistic form? How do we measure the critical mass of interested consumers necessary to make a piece of art worth creating? How do we measure the necessary minimum time the artwork needs to be in the center of public discourse? Should we apply the same standard to other art forms, such as books or paintings, before any of them are created? The beauty of a piece of art is that it exists for people to consume, analyze and relish over long periods of time, leaving a mark in the world and sending a message across generations, even if it is not in the news for months on end.
Secondly, if building monuments is that irrelevant, I would expect Mr. Jones to advocate for the full secession of monument building world-wide. Why waste resources on something that will soon become “fading bronzes in public places”? Surely, we should stop building statues of men as well – after all, the world has more important things to do, so let’s prioritize, right? However, the author’s argument seems to be confined to the uselessness of female statues, which seems odd.
On that note, I should say that statues and monuments are not quite the utterly useless art forms that Mr. Jones describes. They spark curiosity and conversations in passerby pedestrians, even if they are not often the subjects of viral hashtag campaigns. They make a statement about the relevance and importance of individuals to the history of a city or country. And the message being sent by a complete lack of female statues in a city is that women did not do all that much to contribute to the social and political developments of their homeland throughout its 13 centuries of existence.
Lastly, suggesting that feminism needs political actions instead of statue-building implies that feminist activism is a zero-sum game, with each act pulling time and resources from another. In reality, activism comes in many forms, of which art has always been an important one. When artists bring attention to a social cause, they are usually helping, rather than hindering, the political efforts aimed to address it. Commemorating women’s contributions through art does not hurt feminism, nor does it divert resources from other forms of feminist engagement.
For feeling the urge to educate us on what feminism does and does not need, all the while advocating against the commemoration of women’s lives, work and accomplishments, this gets a 3 out of 5 Enough Alreadys:
Women’s rights are frequently violated on multiple fronts, and some violations have more significant consequences than others (e.g., violence against women, denial of affordable healthcare, sexual harassment). But we believe that every form of sexism is important to challenge, including pervasive forms of casual sexism that we see every day. In “Today’s Sexism Alert,” we call out incidents of such casual or “everyday” sexism that come to our notice.