The artist’s works amend the white supremacist mythology contained in American monuments and historical paintings: “Democracy requires a clear understanding of the past, including its mistakes.”
America thus stepped forward in the first blossoming of the modern age and added to the Art of Beauty, gift of the Renaissance, and to Freedom of Belief […] a vision of democratic self-government: the domination of political life by the intelligent decision of free and self-sustaining men. […] It was the Supreme Adventure, in the last Great Battle of the West, for that human freedom which would release the human spirit from lower lust for mere meat, and set it free to dream and sing. And then some unjust God leaned, laughing, over the ramparts of heaven and dropped a black man in the midst. It transformed the world. It turned democracy back to Roman Imperialism and Fascism; it restored caste and oligarchy; it replaced freedom with slavery and withdrew the name of humanity from the vast majority of human beings.
Fascist ideology extols the past. Though the past, in fascist ideology, is never the actual lived, complex reality experienced by different groups but instead a myth in which a nation’s men are idealized as dignified generals and honorable conquerors. In the United States, our version of fascism is based upon the dogma of white supremacy. Our fascist myth-making involves priding ourselves in distorted narratives of white men conquering the plains, winning wars of independence, and becoming prodigious industrialists. When today’s politicians engage in such views, we can easily recognize and expose them as white supremacist myths. A good education now can be expected to lead to the right response. Yet in order to protect ourselves from fascism, we must also attend to the ways in which such myths enter into our lives unchallenged. We must be sensitive to how museums and galleries help facilitate fascist myths and allow white people to find comfort in visual narrations that perpetuate white supremacist views of the past. It is here that Titus Kaphar’s work is so vital.
Your work reflects your understanding that Americans are conditioned to accept the white supremacist myth. Our culture and education still largely demand consent. Much of our cultural heritage, in particular our historical paintings, reveals the grand self-regard of past white elites. Any American, at a moment’s notice, can call to their mind’s eye one of George Washington’s heroic depictions in oil. And even though official histories have been modified to reflect the fact that it wasn’t just whites who have experienced time, visual culture remains largely unchanged and questionable representations of the past are kept on display. Would you say that we are required to amend these artworks?
The idea of “amending” our national monuments inspired my series Monumental Inversions, a growing body of sculptural work that’s currently manifested in wood, glass, and marble. The idea of amendment came after a trip to the Museum of Natural History with my two sons. At the museum entrance stands a massive equestrian sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt. He sits, boldly controlling the animal with one hand while a Native American and African American in anachronistic tribal garb walk on either side of him. As we approached, my son asked, “Who is the man on the horse? And why does he get to ride while they walk?”
It’s not enough to rename our buildings, tear down our statues, and deaccession the relics of our flawed past. It’s simply not enough. What is to be done with the monuments that stand in direct contradiction to the constitutional edicts that we hold most dear? The provision for amendment in the Constitution is integral to our national identity. It documents the mistakes of the past alongside revisions of an evolving present.