Robert Bevan, Monumental Lies: Culture Wars and the Truth about the Past (Verso 2022), 376pp. Robert Bevan, Monumental Lies: Culture Wars and the Truth about the Past (Verso 2022), 376pp.

Robert Bevan in Monumental Lies raises important questions about architecture and heritage, but purism is not a substitute for politics, argues Dominic Alexander

People have been building symbolic monuments and monumental architecture for a very long time, even before more settled modes of living came with agriculture. Time, never mind human intervention has taken its toll on those that survive. Monuments, such as Stonehenge for example, certainly inspire wonder and an imperative towards preservation. Problems arise, however, with the constructions of oppressive class societies, because these in their immediate context, justly, are liable to provoke the impulse towards destruction.

Perhaps the earliest example of such iconoclasm comes from Çayönü in eastern Anatolia from the eighth millennium BCE, where a complex of temple buildings, built by a class society that practised human sacrifice, was destroyed. What replaced it was an egalitarian society, with a much less monumental architectural style. Shelley comes to mind:

‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

The poet is conventionally taken as referring to the ravages of time here, but he was also a committed radical in the time just after the wars against revolutionary France, and could well also be thinking of the iconoclasm of revolutions, which frequently seek to obliterate the symbols of the old ruling class.

Çayönü’s symbolic architecture had a grisly purpose, so its destruction was a practical act as well as a symbolic one, and would surely be hard to criticise. It may be more controversial to defend the acts of Puritan soldiers in the English Revolution who destroyed statues of saints embedded in church architecture. Nevertheless, the power of the Church to interfere with people’s lives, church courts being a reality still in the seventeenth century, was something that needed to be eradicated. Firing cannons at stone figures in their church niches were symbolic acts, but probably seemed necessary ones at the time. When oppressive powers are still a threat, their monuments have more than just symbolic power.

Symbol wars

Robert Bevan in Monumental Lies takes as his starting point that our architectural and artistic infrastructure of remembrance is significantly composed of ‘lies about the past’, concerning the different collections of horrors and injustices in each country’s history. He agrees on these ‘finally being called to account’ and the justice of ‘a demand that the commemorative environment of the present reflect larger truths’ (p.5). The book is a fascinating and very wide-ranging discussion of a whole range of controversies about preservation and change, putting them carefully in wider social and political contexts.

The book opens with the recent ‘culture wars’ over statues of figures such as slave traders like Colston in Bristol, or Confederate generals in the southern United States. For the US, black Americans are, he writes, ‘rightly unconvinced that such symbols are about Southern heritage rather than hate’ (p.6). There are problems everywhere you look: ‘In Edinburgh there are more statues to dogs than real-life females; in London more figures of animals than named women’ (p.7).

Altogether these ‘monumental lies’ that seem ubiquitous ‘assert a particular collective identity’ which ‘effectively serves capitalism, nationalism, white supremacy, misogyny, and heteronormativity’. However, he also is concerned whether ‘in this, are we giving these objects too much power?’ (p.11). Bevan recognises the importance of campaigns which are part of a ‘wider, systemic dismantling process’, but argues that it is also necessary not to obscure the fact that ‘the ruling class has been perfectly willing to honour genocidaires such as Cecil Rhodes or Christopher Columbus’ (p.11). Perhaps even more importantly, Bevan warns against believing that ‘a more progressive and inclusive monumental landscape will itself produce social change’ (p.17).

It won’t, of course. As much as liberal thinking tends to promote the idea that ‘role models’ whether of the living or stone variety are important for the achievement of ‘equal opportunities’, they do nothing to remove the structures of oppression and exploitation which do the real work of reproducing inequality and suffering. Bevan points out also that the social-democratic left is drawn to fighting around cultural issues precisely during the period where it as offered less and less of an economic alternative to neoliberal capitalism. Yet, while the French crowd storming the Bastille was liberating a mostly empty prison, the moment was an important one. Symbols can be important for the focusing of revolutionary forces in the course of achieving real, structural changes. Symbolic actions mustn’t be dismissed too easily.

Anti-modernism and anti-welfarism

It is not, however, only the left which wants to change the face of the built environment. The right makes use of ‘culture wars’ over architecture effectively as a means of attacking much of the post-war welfare state. The championing of classical styles against modernist buildings was not merely a harmless eccentricity of the former Crown Prince, but part of a wholesale demolition of an infrastructure of public buildings and social housing that has gone along with the increasing privatisation of public space.

The issue is not about the relative aesthetic merits of two architectural styles, and you don’t have to be an ardent fan of modernism as such to see Bevan’s point here, that a deeply regressive programme lies behind much of the championing of ‘beauty’ against modernist ‘ugliness’. Again, nothing in either style of architecture is political in themselves. Indeed, the modernist ‘International Style became the spatial currency of global capitalism’ (p.62), despite modernism’s earlier occasional association with municipal socialism.

The quarrels over all this perhaps reaches its most politicised form in Germany, and here also is Bevan’s type specimen for what the replacement of modernism with classicism can mean. In the devasted post-war city of Frankfurt am Main, a fairly unlovely new town hall was built in a flattened part of the old town, but more recently it has been replaced by a pastiche ‘fake “Old Town” … all quaint half-timbering … and gables’. This was done using ‘public money in a €200 million public-private project for the creation of an upmarket enclave of shops and apartments’ (p.64).

At first sight, the German tendency to rebuild bombed-out old town centres as identical replicas does not seem unreasonable. However, Bevan advances two main lines of argument against the practice. First is a theme taken up in a range of contexts throughout the book that such ‘fakery’ effectively wipes away the evidence of the ravages of war, and that such should remain as a warning, regardless of how much what was destroyed might be valued. The second argument is not so much about the debates over preservation, and rather concerns the political forces that can lie behind such programmes:

‘There is an agenda among many traditionalist rebuilders that wants to visually deny the record of both National Socialism and several decades of democracy since. These fantasies are ideology in built form that seeks to reconnect with an eternal German heimat and its deeply conservative values. Architectural fakes are one of its tools’ (p.67).

Inevitably, overtly far-right groups have also been able to exploit various rebuilding projects in the old East Germany as well, such as in Dresden and Potsdam, where in both cases there is a notable reluctance to acknowledge the militaristic and Nazi associations of the buildings being restored.

Associated with this is the wave of demolition of Communist-era buildings and statues. It is not that removing Stalinist statuary should be seen as particularly problematic in itself, but the double standards at work are quite blatant: ‘The Dresden Historical Neumarket Society is the powerful business organisation behind many changes. It is now turning its attention to the opposite side of the river where it wants to replace GDR social housing with more ersatz recreations’ (p.79). This is all of a piece with a tendency of the right, across the capitalist world, for appeals to notions of classical architectural beauty to mask deeply reactionary social goals:

‘The assault on [post-war] architecture is both symbolic and actual. It is a desire to unmake the relatively successful cosmopolitan mosaic of British inner cities, pushing working class housing to the periphery and rebuilding city centres as privileged, segregated pleasure domes unpolluted by difference’ (p.85).

International heritage and imperialism

Other apparently benign attempts to deal with preservation of cultural heritage also turn out to be uncomfortably mired in issues of power and politics. Much discussion in the book is devoted to Unesco, part of whose founding principles in regard to heritage was to preserve authenticity in conservation, as well as the promotion of peace and reconciliation (p.149). However, the body’s increasing departure from those original principles, in Bevan’s view, is undermining its legitimacy.

There is an obvious ‘moral justification’ for attempting to reconstruct ‘monuments destroyed by aggressors in the name of ethnic cleansing and genocide’, however, there is a grave problem when such reconstructions end by ‘denying to history the very evidence of past events’ (p.156). Bevan regards as problematically determinist the view that architectural reconstruction can serve to bring about reconciliation. Indeed, one of his most powerful examples is the reconstructed sixteenth-century Ottoman bridge at Mostar in Bosnia. Unesco might claim it as a renewed symbol of a multicultural city, but it ‘is not a layered critical reconstruction that properly differentiates new work from old or incorporates the experience of war’. Worse, by declaring the whole area an authentic world heritage site, Unesco is ignoring the fact of the now segregated city.

In this and many other contexts, the policies of heritage organisations like Unesco have become dangerously tied into Western imperialist agendas. Particularly from the point of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, whose damage to Iraqi historical heritage is notorious, ‘the way heritage professionals are now engaging with the military is being seen as more and more problematic to the point of complicity’ (p.166).

The cultural destruction unleashed by Da’esh (Bevan’s choice of designation) was ‘extensive and especially heinous when a component of its crimes against humanity’, but was nonetheless ‘a notably minor subset of the damage caused across Syria and Iraq by all warring parties’ (p.164). John Kerry made a speech about this. The ‘civilised world must take a stand’, he declaimed, but as Bevan says: ‘Bombing was being justified in the name of rescuing culture’ (p.165). It is worth adding as an addendum that colonial powers have done massive damage in this very region, including the French in sites such as Damascus, Palmyra and Krak des Chevaliers: ‘Who is regarded as the barbarian can sometimes only be a matter of timing and power’ (p.195).

The book is rich in detailed discussions of both the artistic and architectural issues and political contexts of many different problems across the contemporary world. A consistent theme, however, is the importance of the preservation of historical evidence, even or especially that of damage. While claims have been made that it is increasingly possible to restore damage completely, Bevan shows these claims not only to be absurdly overstated, but in a more sinister way, to risk covering up the evidence of violence.

If there is not transparent authenticity in all this, ‘reconstruction can be another way of erasing history’. This leads to an ‘increasing falsification of the historic architectural record’, contributing ‘to the sense of an unreliable world where we do not know whether something is true or false, whether a building is genuinely historic … or merely a clever copy’ (pp.131-2). These tendencies, Bevan concludes, are ‘a gift to the totalitarian who benefits from exploiting any uncertainty over the observable facts of the world.’

These are, then, serious concerns, which come from an expert witness in this field. Bevan opens the book with some clear statements about the obnoxious messages of Confederate statues in the United States, or slave trader and colonialist statues in Britain. He does, however, raise concerns about the campaigns against these reactionary symbols. Partly this comes from his scepticism about both liberal and right-wing deterministic ideas about architecture and civic space. These span from the militarisation of policing building on the ‘broken windows’ theory of urban decay, to the Unesco-style assumption that restoration projects will magically heal the damage of bitter wars.

Back to the statue wars

Bevan is clearly very much alive to the way that social forces are the determining factor in the history of architecture, so it is something of a surprise to find that he advances some criticism of David Olusoga and Gary Younge, for example, over the statues controversy. This on the grounds that they both argue in different ways that the statues and monuments are not meaningful or useful historical artefacts. Bevan’s objection here arises from his concern with historical authenticity; he prefers an approach of dishonouring contextualisation to simple removal. Cecil Rhodes’ statue at the front of Oriel College, Oxford, he suggests, could be left in place, but ‘shamed in the full view of the city’s High Street shoppers’ by being turned to face his niche (p.285). This is an interesting solution, but whether it would fully answer the problem is much less clear.

At one point, Bevan acknowledges that ‘we might be far less troubled by the presence of offensive contested heritage and honorific monuments in our midst if we were living in a world where minorities weren’t still suffering and oppressed’ (p.262). While Bevan turns from this to restate his position that we are giving these objects ‘too much power’, surely the point of the context of ongoing structural oppression and exploitation is that is provides an overwhelmingly more important imperative for removal. Symbols aren’t ephemeral in a situation where they are still relevant to existing relations of power. In various contexts, Bevan is aware of the importance of democratic participation in the creation of our built environment, and this is also surely relevant to the discussion here.

In Bristol, a multi-racial protest took direct action after decades of stonewalling from the city authorities. The situation is clearly similar to that in the United States where Confederate statues, some completed as late as 1972 (p.37), have an obvious role in, first, the construction of segregation, and then in resistance to meaningful de-segregation. They are ‘intimidatory monuments’ where the ruling powers still seek to intimidate, and they ‘patrol the spaces around them … the better to demonstrate the power of the law and the threat of discriminatory incarceration’ (p.35).

Bevan does see the sharpness of the issues involved, and makes the relevant arguments in the course of his discussions, but then declines to accommodate the necessary consequences. On Colston, he notes a neglected aspect of Bristol’s extensive commemoration of the slave trader. It came well after the abolition of slavery: ‘Surely those promoting Colston knew they were doing wrong?’ What was important, however, was the use of all the memorialisation to ‘shore up’ the city elite’s ‘civic power, to foster an imagined civic community in the face of rising class conflict, growing trade unionism, and socialist ideas’ (p.40). The class dimension of the Colston cult may not be fully articulated as much as it might be. Yet, it seems no accident that it is Bristol, where there is a strong and vibrant radical left of various tendencies, that was the city where a young and multi-racial crowd accomplished something that has yet to be done elsewhere in Britain.

If the new iconoclasm achieves nothing more than the removal of some statues and dedications, then it will have failed, as nothing more than the symbolic will have been achieved. However, in achieving serious structural change in society, it is often necessary to rally around symbolic points of focus in order to build the momentum to challenge and overcome ruling social powers.

The physical damage done by such revolutionary processes is usually quite limited. The impact of the New Model Army on the fabric of English churches, it is now realised, was much less than the destruction wreaked by Henry VIII’s top-down reformation. Indeed, Bevan sees it as important that the ‘tragic results of Henry VIII’s iconoclasm directed at religious art and the worship of shrines’ not be occluded by modern restoration. Yet, we are part of history too, and now that the Colston statue is in a museum, historical authenticity and evidence is perfectly well served. In any case, the statues just have to go.

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Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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