Monumental Fugitivity: The Aesthetics of #BlackLivesMatter Defacement

John Brooks

Defacement’s engine is the excessive, the disorderly, the disquieting, and any other sort of radical exclamation that troubles the state of things. It is not simply an act of destruction but rather a process of rupturing the surface of social normativity to create the conditions in which the public can confront that which it thinks it knows. This is to say that defacement is first and foremost a critique of Western epistemology, which is why it does not resolve into the kinds of meaning that the dominant culture considers to be intelligible or legitimate.

The disfigurement of the J. E. B. Stuart Monument in Richmond, Virginia, exemplifies defacement’s troubling affect. This monument, comprised of a fifteen-foot-tall bronze statue and a seven-and-a-half-foot granite pedestal, depicted Confederate General James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart in equestrian pose.[1]

Beginning on 29 May 2020, the J. E. B. Stuart Monument served as a rallying point for #BlackLivesMatter protesters, who climbed its plinth to display signs, chant, and listen to speakers. As a form of publicly staged defiance that cut into the normative surface of racial discourse, these demonstrations aimed to upend received ideas about race and rehearse new terms for Black life.

During the demonstrations, protesters pulled down the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the site and covered the monument in graffiti. The messages included “BLM” and “Black Lives Matter” but also antipolice slogans like “ACAB,” “Police are Creepy,” and “Fuck 12.” Amplifying these familiar political phrases were calls to action like “Justice 4 George Floyd” and “Stop White Supremacy” along with statements of grief like “We Lost a Life for Nothing.” In a country where “rules are rules,” “heritage not hate,” and “all lives matter” have become common refrains, these radical transformations of public space raise provocative questions about the function and value of disruptive social energy.

In this post, I use the term re-curation to delineate such acts of defacement. Conventionally, the curator develops the context in which objects can be encountered and understood. Yet, even when curatorial processes seem to impart their own meaning, the aesthetic value the curator creates serves the institutionalized knowledge of the museum. The re-curator is not bound by such parameters. Re-curation denotes an unsolicited, unapproved, and undesired adjustment to the context in which something is exhibited, one that challenges the authority of institutionalized knowledge in controlling how it should be encountered and understood. These kinds of unauthorized performance gestures share a fugitive relation to Western normativity because their very enactment challenges the status quo as the arbiter of aesthetic taste politics.

During the #BlackLivesMatter protests in the summer of 2020, defacers wholly re-curated the J. E. B. Stuart Monument. Originally, the statue had lionized Stuart as a hero with an inscription that emphasized, “He gave his life for his country and saved his city from capture.” These kinds of curated inscriptions serve the New South’s social order by bulwarking the “Lost Cause” nationalist ideology, which sought to vindicate the Confederacy while assuaging white anxieties during—and since—Reconstruction. Protesters re-curated the monument’s eulogy when they spray painted “BLM” and a bold graffiti label identifying Stuart as “RACIST.” The new label overturned the representation of Stuart’s valor and produced, in its stead, an image of a disfigured supremacist who appears inconsistent with the fictive heroes of the Lost Cause narrative.

As an act of re-curation, protesters also bent Stuart’s cavalry saber comically and masochistically backward, and splashed him with red paint reminiscent of blood. The blood-red paint draws attention to both the routine murders of enslaved Africans in the antebellum period and also the continuing racial violence that modern American policing routinizes in the present. It calls to mind the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s martyrs, including but not limited to George Floyd, which organizes revolutionary consciousness around a shared understanding of injustice.

Moreover, demonstrators symbolically lynched Stuart, inverting the conventional master-slave power structure. They draped two nooses around his neck and, on 22 June, pulled on them in an attempt to topple the statue. This action would have completed the death cycle that they had initiated the previous month, but they were unable to unseat the six-ton effigy before police broke up the crowd with teargas.

To consider defacement as an aesthetic act is to recognize these re-curations as creative responses to the racial contract that underwrites social normativity. By disputing the context in which Confederate statuary has been encountered and understood, re-curations also disturb mainstream perspectives about how monuments should be regarded (as neutral historical artifacts or heritage sites, for instance). As a re-curative practice, defacement transgresses the comfort of conceptual familiarity to render visible the everyday racism that the status quo preserves, as well as the public’s complicity with that racism. Defacers use a statue’s surface as material for generating new meaning and thus furnish a confrontation with society’s “public secret,” the term Michael Taussig uses to describe the truths a society is unwilling—or unable—to acknowledge because doing so threatens that society’s unmaking.[2]

Logical reasoning and objective judgment cannot be the end goal of defacement because society already knows its public secrets (even as it also knows not to know them). Instead of appealing to logos, defacement’s strategic violations aim to provoke affective responses—like shock and anger; or relief and pleasure—that might spark an embodied mode of critical inquiry in which spectators can negotiate the tension between society’s professed beliefs and its racial contract. If the body acts as a prism through which the world is experienced, meaning it and its sensations are constitutive of all that can be known, then this immediate sensory experience might be a more significant means for confronting the reach of the racial episteme than abstract rationalism alone.

Defacement’s critical momentum is apparent in the reactions that it provokes. When images of the re-curated J. E. B. Stuart Monument began circulating on Instagram, some users called demonstrators “Left wing thugs” and described their actions as “utterly disgusting” or “Terrible atrocious and criminal.” These attempts to construe protesters’ actions as evidence for the failure—or even absence—of moral reasoning spring of a certain nervousness over the forces that defacement unleashes. Such socio-moral appeals to the law reflect a desire for the stability of the racial order, both a commitment to social normativity and a preservation concern for the racial discourse that safeguards it. Like the paternalistic voice these Instagram users adopt to render defacement juvenile, accusations of criminality and incivility aim to preserve Western perspectives about moral reasoning, modern subjectivity, and respectability, all of which are predicated on the rationality of whiteness.

Other Instagram users accused protesters of vandalism. Some wrote, “Sad to see a debate, whatever it is, expressed in graffiti vandalism of public spaces” and “Sad they had to revert to vandalism and destruction of property.” Like defacement, vandalism describes acts that visibly mar an object. But, as Vernon L. Allen and David B. Greenberger have argued, for the vandalizer the destruction of property serves no purpose other than the pleasure of property’s destruction.[3] More significantly, vandalism’s preoccupation with property ownership and value implies a hierarchy of concern in the service of racial capitalism. Vandalism denotes “ruthless destruction or spoiling of anything beautiful or venerable,”[4] presuming an unequal differentiation of property-human value in which objects like Confederate monuments are worth more—or, at least, worthy of more protection—than the Black lives they disparage. The charge of vandalism (much like “rioters,” “looters,” or “thugs”) is racially coded language deployed to vilify communities of color while affirming the assumed civility of whiteness.

Reducing #BlackLivesMatter defacement to vandalism erases its disruptive social energy. For example, the demonstrations at the J. E. B. Stuart Monument effectively re-curated Richmond’s “white space”[5] by turning Monument Avenue into an impromptu skatepark. As a conscious, indexical act intended to support #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations, hundreds of skateboarders gathered at the statue under the hashtag #SkateInSolidarity on 31 May 2020. One of them could be seen waving a Rastafarian flag, which combines the conquering lion of Judah (a symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy from Haile Selassie’s reign) with green, gold, and red. The flag represents kingship, pride, and African sovereignty. It brings a visible sign of Black empowerment to the scene and disputes the de facto whiteness of the US nation-state.

Fugitivity is an essential feature of re-curation and the critical force that gives defacement its aesthetic value. When cultural arbiters authorize #BlackLivesMatter messages, their apparent “legitimacy” hollows out their impact. Consider the “Black Lives Matter Plaza” in Washington, D.C. Its thirty-five-foot-long street mural seems to echo protesters’ calls for inclusion, diversity, and equality, but because a spirit of white supremacy tacitly (and explicitly) underwrites the long tradition of liberal thought, the US Capitol’s advocacy amounts to empty mimicry of #BlackLivesMatter dissent. The mural cannot be interpreted as an unruly and irruptive refusal of Western civilization’s social norms or ethical values, but it might be perceived as a mode of performative appeasement intended to placate protesters while preserving the status quo.

In August 2020, after the defaced J. E. B. Stuart Monument had been removed, city officials commissioned pressure washing and repainting of the site where it previously stood. Undiscouraged, protesters returned to reenact their dissent. When Richmond whitewashed the plinth of the monumentwith a chalky, pale paint the week of 10 August, activists re-curated it with tags of “BLM,” “ACAB,” “Fuck 12,” and “Fuck the Confederacy.” This restoration/re-curation process continued over subsequent months. New messages included “You Can’t Stop the Movement” (20 August), “Marcus David Peters” (22 August), “Justice for Breonna!!! Black Lives Matter!!!” (24 September), “Fuck U Proud boys,” (3 October), “Fuck Trump” (5 October), and “ELECTION NIGHT BECOME UNGOVERNABLE” (8 October).[6]

As an ongoing return to the scene of subjection and a continuing rejection of white hegemony, the reenactment of defacement unfolds as a kind of “rehearsal” of Black liberation. Connected to a theoretical paradigm that I developed with Laura Partain,[7] this sense of rehearsal is double natured. It describes the coordination of a Black liberation ensemble in preparation for a liberated future, something akin to goal-oriented practicing or reciting; however, it also suggests that the processual reenactment of defacement is itself a creative process of liberation, rehearsal being coextensive with the performance that participants plan to produce. I mean that the anticipatory logic of the Black radical imagination infuses and inspires the reenactment of defacement and that this anticipatory logic both imagines new terms for Black life in the United States and, by insisting on agency in the face of subjugation, also creates the conditions in which those new terms can be realized. This is to say that defacement opens onto an experimental exercise of freedom in which radical acts of refusal signal the becoming of a critical Blackness.

The re-curation enacted at the former site of the J. E. B. Stuart Monument on 27 September 2020 shows how defacement rehearses new terms for Black life. On the plinth’s eastern face, a protester painted “Blackness is beauty, patience, love, grace. / We are ART. / I hope this disturbs you.”

The rear of the pedestal was tagged “Blackness is forced / strength / sorrow, pain, suffering.”

The smaller sides were similarly re-curated, one declaring “We Matter” and the other urging spectators to “look / listen / learn.”

This defacement enlivens critical Blackness as an aesthetic response to racialization in the West that expands, synthesizes, and comments on historically entrenched ideas about race. Such a reimagining of Blackness is significant not only because it constitutes an abrupt and turbulent refusal of reason but also because its actors, in the act of refusing, are claiming the authority to refuse, meaning they gain an antagonistic agency that argues with the Blackness-as-slaveness subjectivity posited by racial discourse. As an insurrection against the social codes and customs that aim to make Blackness culturally legible as slaveness, we might even read the defacement as an expression of ontogeny, a coming into being of a mode of consciousness that is distinct from that with which protesters had heretofore navigated the white space reconstituted by the J. E. B. Stuart Monument. Indeed, this defacement expresses what Blackness is—a vehicle for querying the West’s racial order—that is known only by its irruptive, rupturing power: “I hope this disturbs you.”

John Brooks is visiting assistant professor of English at Boston College. His research draws on performance studies and phenomenological inquiry to examine the role of abstraction in rendering discourses of race unintelligible. In his forthcoming book, The Racial Unfamiliar: Encountering Illegibility in Contemporary African American Literature and Culture (Columbia University Press, 2022), he argues that a group of twenty-first-century artists refute established racial discourse by disregarding and defying the conventions that govern Black aesthetic practices. His published research includes essays in PMLAAfrican American Review, and J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists.

[1] Stuart (6 February 1833 – 12 May 1864) was a slave owner and Confederate cavalry commander who died from a gunshot wound sustained during the Battle of Yellow Tavern.

[2] Michael T. Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative (Stanford, Calif., 1999), p. 5.

[3] See Vernon L. Allen and David B. Greenberger, “An Aesthetic Theory of Vandalism,” Crime & Delinquency 24, no. 3 (1978): 309-21.

[4] Oxford English Dictionary, online ed., s.v. “Vandalism.”

[5] Elijah Anderson, “The White Space,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 1, no. 1 (2015): 10-21.

[6] And later, “Vote Racism Out” (21 October); a large red heart (October 24); spray-painted penises surrounding “Cops are Dicks,” “ACAB,” and “Fuck J. E. B” (30 November).

[7] See “preservation” in Laura Partain, “Dynamic Exchanges: A Mixed Method Analysis of Palestinians and Syrians in US News Media Cycles” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 2021), p. 258. 

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