The Unsettling Truth Behind What Columbus Monuments Really Stand For

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In cities across the world over the past month, activists have been taking aim at symbols of oppression in the form of monuments: splashing them with paint, tagging them with graffiti, and most importantly, tearing them down. Among the most targeted statues in the US are those of Christopher Columbus. While he is still portrayed in American elementary schools as a folkloric hero responsible for "discovering the New World," the grim facts behind the legend have recently led to Columbus monuments being toppled and trampled, tossed into bodies of water, and even beheaded.

But there's much more to the story than a broad-strokes whitewashing of one colonialist's anti-Indigenous brutality. In an essay for Artnet News earlier this month, national art critic Ben Davis teased out the complexities of the Columbus myth by delving into the history of the monument towering over New York City's eponymous Columbus Circle. Built in the late 19th century as a concession to Italian immigrants subject to eerily familiar forms of racist violence, the monument shows how the Columbus myth helped ingrain white supremacy into the nation's foundation—and set the stage for unquantifiable injustices still afflicting the country today.

On this week's episode of The Art Angle, Davis joins Andrew Goldstein to discuss the Columbus Circle statue's long history as a political pawn, its link to other monuments commemorating problematic historical figures, and what it all means for whether these symbols should be preserved or destroyed.

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