In the midst of the hot debate about whether certain public statues should be removed, no-one talks about the plinths on which such statues are erected or considers toppling those as well. Does this mean that the plinth is 100% neutral, i.e. simply “a heavy base supporting a statue or vase” (as the Dictionary defines it). It is made for structural purposes alone to raise the statue in question to the desired height for public viewing and to support its weight.
My artist colleagues and I have been exploring the social distinctions between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ individuals or behaviours in our society and what values these judgements are based on. Given the prominence of the current debate around statues, we recently turned our attention to those and decided to set ourselves the exercise of constructing different kinds of plinths with a view to creating discussion about who alive today might be deserving of a statue on our plinths. As so often with art, the act of trying to construct plinths took my thinking in new directions. It challenged me into considering what a plinth is for and what it symbolises. Is it entirely neutral?
I now realise how highly symbolic and morally charged the plinths are. No single individual gets to be highly successful on their own. For example, not one of the most successful individuals today – be they politicians, entrepreneurs, business moguls, artists, elite athletes or scientists – achieved that success based on their talent, skills or activities alone without the work of a host of individuals’ unseen and often unrecognised activities or contributions behind the scenes. For some, this might be their school teachers or mentors or earlier ideas, theories and research on which their own ideas, inventions or discoveries are based. For some, it might be the wealth they were lucky to be born or marry into which enabled them to invest or start a business or simply have sufficient personal income to freely pursue their interests. For any one of us citizens, we are only able to do what we do any day thanks to the people we usually don’t know who provide our food, keep our electricity, communications and sewage running smoothly, clean our offices and keep our roads and transport operating. Thanks to Covid-19 lockdown, we’ve seen that these poorly paid support workers are in fact our “essential workers”. So, the solid plinth on which any statue stands represents all the work of all the individuals who enabled the person featured to achieve whatever they achieved.
Ah… but I now realise this cuts both ways. Above, I was considering all the ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ contributions which build and maintain the support structure for any successful individual in any walk in life. But turned around, isn’t the same true for the now morally despised individualds like Colston? Who were the many individuals back in 1690 contributing to the ‘structure’ which was the solid base for Colston’s wealth and perceived individual success? Just to list a few: the ship builders, the bankers who financed the build, the dock workers, the sailors, the pilots and of course the entire population who bought and became hooked on the sugar which the slave plantations grew. In 1746, economist Malachi Postlethwaite wrote, “If we have no Negroes, we can have no sugar, tobacco, rum etc. Consequently the public revenue, arising from the importation of plantation produce, will be wiped out. And hundreds of thousands of Britons making goods for the triangular trade will lose their jobs and go a begging“.
Aware or unaware, free to choose their line of work or not, a huge sector of the British population helped construct that solid Colston Plinth, if you will. And the buildings which Colston helped finance are the basis for much of Bristol’s huge attraction and success as a thriving city enjoyed by all its citizens today.
As a society, we will always look for the lone scapegoat rather than each examining our own role in accepting an established society policy or practice and enabling it’s continuation or growth by the every day work we do, the way we vote or (perhaps most significantly) the purchase choices we make. So maybe before we topple the next statue, we need to consider what solid plinths we are are helping build or maintain today?