To stroll my neighbourhood is to encounter Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Alexander Pushkin, assorted generals and a weirdly recumbent Albert Einstein. Few cities have as many as statues per capita as Washington (Vienna, perhaps?) — but then hardly any do entirely without them. As much as architecture and urban planning vary, the sculptural heroisation of people seems to hold across the world.
Even those who would topple, deface or merely petition against some of them can often tell you which other figures should stand in their stead. In that sense, if no other, the two sides of the statue debate are as one. They both believe that individual agency is the motor of the world. The question is which individuals to venerate.
It is now 180 years since Thomas Carlyle, to some groans, advanced his “great man” theory of history. It is the exceptional human who determines the course of events, he said, and not the impersonal trends of economics, ideas and technology. We cannot say, for instance, that post-revolution France, in all its mayhem, would have swung pendulously back to order. It took a Napoleon to come along. To de-gender Carlyle’s theory, we cannot assume that 1970s Britain, strike-crippled and broke, was going to be tamed. Were it not for Margaret Thatcher, the country might now be unrecognisable.
This stress on the individual was contentious even at the time. After Marx, who saw the future as all but written, it came to be viewed as almost primitive. “History from below” — the doings of the masses — became more credible. Yet for all that his argument struggles for scholarly favour, Carlyle understood how the rest of us think. We are a species of shameless hero-worshippers.
It is there in the over-remuneration of corporate executives. The usual justification — this boss is special, not a replaceable cog — works too well too often. It is there in the proliferation of strongmen. “I alone can fix it”, said Donald Trump, in a version of the same pitch made by leaders from Brasília to Manila, to widespread credulity.
It is even there in the pyramid structure of celebrity. With near-zero barriers to entry, the internet — and YouTube especially — had the power to democratise fame, to spread it among many. Instead, it has thrown up a handful of genuine megastars (KSI, Logan Paul) and a jobbing mass of vloggers and yoga-mat reviewers. I doubt that this reflects the distribution of talent any more than Hollywood’s pyramid, with its rare Ryan Goslings and its fat base of also-rans. More likely, it is a demand-side problem. We are predisposed to seek out a few people and read specialness into them. Carlyle got history wrong but us right.
While there is statuary, there is a case for it to be more diverse. Britain’s blue plaques might be a model to emulate. George Frideric Handel’s and Jimi Hendrix’s plaques are on adjacent buildings in Mayfair.
But real progress will come when we grow out of the need for superheroes altogether. The cult of the great man or woman is rich with problems. For one, it is a poor way of understanding the messiness of history. For another, it often gives bad art a good name. Think of Jacques-Louis David’s kitsch vision of Napoleon at the Alps. Or those biopics (Lincoln, Gandhi) that we feel shy to call out for their deathly ponderousness. Some of Washington’s statues dignify the city. Others drain the life from its public spaces.
And more than that, hero-worship contradicts the supposed zeitgeist. It was natural enough that a Victorian chauvinist, a believer in brute hierarchies, would emphasise the outstanding individual. Carlyle even argued that studying such people could tease out one’s own epic potential. The real wonder is that his outlook survives into our hyper-democratic age, when Everyman is so romanticised and the idea of elites so roundly traduced. Deference is over, we assure ourselves. Wisdom lies in the masses. We are all potential agents of change. But then look at all the inert titans as you roam the city, and the clamour for yet more and different ones. We don’t mean a word of it.