Opinion: Art, and monuments, can teach profound lessons

As a structural and geotechnical engineer, I marvel at the planet’s beauty, and that includes one of its largest monoliths, Georgia’s Stone Mountain. Its imposing beauty, in my view, was defaced by man’s imposition of a three-acre bas-relief, memorializing the Confederacy and a deplorable chapter in our history.

Setting aside for a moment the assault on the grand, granite “canvas,” art is subjective both in technical expression and in symbolism. We give it meaning. Since its beginnings, art has offended, and been deemed obscene, at worst; and been glorious and inspiring, at best.

Art is unsettling, and our view of it often changes as society changes. When Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel was unveiled, religious and political leaders saw it as obscene and wholly objectionable. Some 500 years later, architect Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans memorial plan was denied a permit by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior; its design was called “a black gash of shame.” Of course, both pieces now are iconic for their creativity and symbolism.

Examples of changing interpretations of art and artists over time are too numerous to count. And art that brings a political statement is sure to energize and unite – or divide — as in the case of Picasso’s Guernica, a mural that represents the bombing of a small town during the Spanish Civil War. In the U.S., artists themselves protested the painting’s display in New York during the Vietnam era.

In the case of the Confederate carving, there are many who embrace its symbolism. Others try to understand and absorb its lessons – its story. As someone once said, “We don’t see art, art sees us.”

Our choices regarding art, particularly art with an historic message, are to embrace it, avoid it, and in either event, reflect on its lessons for our times. We cannot rewrite history, and attempts to hide it always will be foiled.

We can, however, rediscover it and retell it from its many points of view. That’s what is happening today as we struggle with the dark chapters in our past. The carving, rather than being a statement of unification, is a polarizing one.

Twentieth-century sculptures of Confederate leaders are best moved to museums where they can be studied, admired or reviled, learned from and reflected upon. The Stone Mountain carving is, literally, cast in stone, and however we attempt to change it, its ghost also will remain in stone.

If we want to learn or teach the lessons of Confederate history using this carving, we can visit it. If not, we can avoid it. Erasing the relief, as has been suggested, will result in further damage to the monolith and will leave an ugly, three-acre scar – a ghost - that will continue to haunt us and remind us of what once was there.

Therefore, let’s leave it as-is, and let it facilitate constructive dialogue about progress and growth. When President Barack Obama placed a wreath on the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, Civil War filmmaker Robert Maxwell spoke about the history of America being a history of liberation. As in how we liberated ourselves from an oppressive mother country, from religious wars, and from the horrors of slavery.

As a naturalized American from India who attended a Southern college in the early 1960s, I am no stranger to our history of segregation and fearsome acts of intimidation by white supremacists. But in the intervening 55 years, I have gained perspective — liberation. As my father advised me back then, if we look for the ugliness, we will find it; if we look for beauty and goodness, we will find that.

I look at the Stone Mountain carving and first see an assault on a rare and beautiful geologic feature. I think of my adopted country’s history and how we need to continue to learn from it and have conversations, and to improve and create a better country for all of us.

I think of Rev. King’s words to “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain, Georgia.” He knew and we know that we must reconcile ourselves with our past and liberate ourselves from what was to create what can be. Art can be an instrument of reconciliation.

The City of Stone Mountain is predominantly African-American, which lends irony to the controversy. Descendants of slavery have drawn physically closer to the monument. I hope it reminds them of King’s words.

I compare erasing the Stone Mountain carving to the way a middle-aged adult might view removing an unfortunate teen-aged arm tattoo. He can cut off his arm, an extreme remedy. He can attempt medical removal, resulting in a disfigured reminder of his bad decision. Or he can leave it as-is, as a clear reminder of bad choices on his journey and use it as a lesson about how to create a better future.

Art is always instructive if we let it speak to us. Even when it tells a sad story, eventually it coaxes insights and learning of history, liberation, reconciliation, and a positive way forward.

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R.K. Sehgal is an Atlanta business executive and consultant.