Can vandalism of historical statues ever be justified as activism?
My views towards vandalism always depend on the circumstances, but I do believe it can be justified to promote change.
In the past month, Canada’s first prime minister has been in the headlines. According to a Montreal Gazette article published on Nov. 12, an anonymous group of “anti-colonial anti-racists” claimed responsibility for spray-painting a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Place du Canada in downtown Montreal. The group filmed themselves in the act and posted the video online. The same article specified that the activists claimed Macdonald was a “white supremacist.”
According to works published by Timothy Stanley, a professor at the University of Ottawa, it appears Macdonald was indeed the first to incorporate racism into Canadian politics. He hated the Chinese, wove laws allowing colonialists to profit from Aboriginal property, and believed an Aryan Canada was key to a successful future, according to Stanley. Allowing problematic figures to remain glorified in ore not only casts a shadow on our public spaces in a literal sense, but also on our identity as an egalitarian society. In my opinion, if Canada prides itself on promoting freedom and acceptance, it must recognize the faults in its initial development.
Acknowledging past racism is important. Recognition serves as a tool for reconciliation and a sign of respect towards those who were preyed on throughout history. If the government does not address aspects of its antecedents and instead allows racist figures to remain honoured in statues, memorial buildings and commemorative plaques, I believe it actively encourages institutionalized racism. Every individual’s vision of progress is subjective. While I might believe vandalizing a statue of Macdonald is a way to demolish respect for supremacists, others will surely disagree.
Yet if Macdonald thought it was acceptable to exclude entire cultures from a developing Canada, are we not allowed to believe it’s acceptable to deface his statue with red paint? In my opinion, “damaging property” is sometimes the most productive way to promote change.
Yet, I do not always agree with others who use vandalism to convey a message, such as the anonymous graffiti artist Banksy. I find his street pieces, which comment on issues that plague the world, extremely clever and tasteful. However, due to his disagreements with the concept of institutionalized art, he also has a history of defacing paintings preserved in galleries.
I view these modifications—such as painting a gas mask on a woman’s face in a piece at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art—as counterproductive in the spread of free art philosophies. Banksy’s tweaking of other individuals’ work seems more like a juvenile prank than a calculated move. The purpose of the Macdonald vandalism was to debase a racist, whereas Banksy’s modifications just disrespect artworks.
Some might feel that vandalizing Macdonald’s statue is too radical. However, racism is sadly embedded in Canada’s past, therefore society must make an effort to recognize injustice in an attempt to achieve equality. I believe many of us want to break away from what the founders of Canada’s Confederation built off of. However, if our streets are still sprinkled with statues of known racists and colonialists, is it possible to be progressive? There are peaceful ways to protest without paint, but I believe vandalism expedites change by calling attention to injustices that hide in plain sight around our cities.
Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth