Sunday, June 4, 2017

OFFENSIVE ART


Several years ago the world recoiled in disgust when the Taliban blew up the statues of Buddha carved into an Afghan mountainside. More recently the press bemoaned the fact that ISIS was engaging in the systematic destruction of ancient artwork and architecture in Iraq and Syria. When vandals destroyed the piece of “art” known as “Piss Christ,” (a crucifix submerged in urine), the act was decried in the press. In our enlightened age we cannot tolerate those intolerant souls who want to do away with artwork that they find offensive—except when the enlightened and tolerant are offended by the artwork. Then it is okay to tear it down. For years now the enlightened and tolerant have been militantly seeking to eradicate crosses, Nativity scenes, and displays of the Ten Commandments. In Gainesville right now, there is a move afoot to tear down “Old Joe,” the 112-year-old statute of a Confederate enlisted man. “Old Joe” is probably not on a par with the mountainside Buddhas for artistic merit, but he’s miles ahead of “Piss Christ.”

Ironically, “Old Joe” is looked upon as a symbol of slavery, when he symbolizes men who were secondary victims of slavery. What do I mean by that? The majority of the rank-and-file enlisted men of the Confederate Army were not slave owners but were poor dirt farmers fighting a war to preserve an institution that kept them in poverty just as surely as it kept Blacks in chains. Anyone familiar with Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America knows that he saw the antebellum South as an impoverished backwater compared to the North. What was the root cause of such poverty in the South? Slavery. The South was like Rome at the time of Julius Caesar. All the good land was gobbled up in the Latifundia, huge plantations worked by gangs of slaves, and the Latifundia reduced the free peasant farmers to abject poverty.  That was the first way that “Old Joe” was a victim of slavery.

The moneybags who owned the plantations started the war to preserve slavery, and then they called on “Old Joe” to fight it. So thousands of “Old Joes” marched off to war and died in order that the plantation owners could maintain the status quo—which meant “Old Joe” was fighting to keep himself near the bottom of the social pyramid. If it wasn’t clear at the beginning of the war, it was clear at the end, when the Confederacy instituted a draft and granted exemptions to anyone who owned 20 or more slaves. I’ve been doing some reading in the 70+ volume compilation of the records of the Union and Confederate Armies, and I’ve noticed that after the Confederate draft was inaugurated, desertions from the Confederate Army skyrocketed.

 “Old Joe” can’t seem to catch a break from anyone. Before the Civil War he was kept in poverty by slavery. During the Civil War he was exploited as cannon fodder by the slave-owning class. Today he is reviled by the enlightened and tolerant because he “symbolizes” slavery, an institution that victimized him. You may ask, “Well, if he didn’t intend to defend slavery, why did he fight?” In the PBS documentary Ken Burns’ Civil War, Shelby Foote gives one “Old Joe’s” explanation. A bedraggled Confederate who had been captured by Union soldiers, was asked by his captors, “You’re not rich. You don’t own any slaves.  Why are you fighting us?” he replied, “Because you’re down here.” Probably not the most profound analysis, but very few “Old Joe’s” were well-educated.