The subtle art of iconography needs to be better evaluated

Eduardo Alvarez/ Asst. Opinion Director 

Symbols make the world go-round, and we have to very picky in how we use them.

Take Spain for example.

In the past few years, Spaniards have chosen to take down all sorts of iconography from the Franco dictatorship.

From statues, to plaques to street names.

Most notably, the Spanish Congress voted to exhume the dictators remains from the country’s most famous cemetery, The Valley of the Fallen, with the idea that public monuments should reflect the public’s morals.

Immediately this made me think of the debate here in the U.S. regarding Confederate statues and flags. In some ways, the issue is exactly the same, and in others, it’s exactly the opposite.

Spain’s fascists erected monuments in their honor because they won the Spanish Civil War, after three years of bloody fratricide. Theirs was an attempt to immortalize a victory that had made the liberal world recoil in disgust.

But the Confederates built their statues after their defeat. Decades after.

The idea wasn’t to record a history that favored them, but to rewrite the context and events of the Civil War to fit a narrative we now call “The Lost Cause.”

Part of this movement was led by veterans who simply wanted their struggle to be appreciated, but its implicit goal was to create a societal layout that would limit the rights of newly emancipated African-Americans.

In Spain, the losers were the Republicans, who had to go into exile for 40 years.

And it’s only now, 40 years after the rebirth of Spanish democracy, that iconography is being reconsidered.

Some argue that what’s done is done and that it makes no sense to waste so much money and resources in changing things that are merely symbolic.

Having considered both sides, my own opinion may be somewhat unsatisfying, which is often a sign of having been well-reasoned.

It depends.

There may be iconography which runs so contrary to the people’s beliefs that to keep it up would be disturbing and undemocratic. A statue of Franco in Spain, for example, or of Hitler in Germany.

Some figures may turn out to be hated after a time.

In this country, we’ve wisely begun to see Andrew Jackson in a more negative light, and the same goes for Christopher Columbus.

Take all of their statues down.

Exhume their corpses if it makes you feel better. But beware of excesses.

Not everyone who had anything to do with Franco’s Spain or the Confederacy is unworthy of a monument, and not every obscure figure who held a rank in those armies merits the mobilization of public funds and energy.

It is possible to go overboard.

And a good metric in knowing how to distinguish between monuments dedicated to causes or regimes, like a statue of Jefferson Davis, and a monument merely tied to these concepts; like the statue of a famous poet who sympathized with Franco’s government.

Modernizing public observances shouldn’t mean uprooting the whole past; only replacing things to the extent that they could be reasonably construed to represent a vile ideology.

A subtle art no doubt disappointing to the firebrands, the blind builders and destroyers.


The opinions presented within this page do not represent the views of PantherNOW Editorial Board. These views are separate from editorials and reflect individual perspectives of contributing writers and/or members of the University community.

Photo by Dean Hinnant on Unsplash.

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