Until I moved to Los Angeles, I lived among immortalized legends cast in bronze. Born in our nation’s capital and growing up on its suburban periphery, I had come to expect that statues of famous men were a distinguishing trait in any city of importance. These majestic figures, from presidents and generals to symbolic figures of justice and freedom, stand sentinel at traffic circles, major crossroads, and cultural hubs throughout Washington, DC. When I moved to Richmond, Virginia to attend college, I found myself in a living gallery that was more intimate and framed by the city’s role in the Civil War and the Confederate South. Richmond’s statues of important men could be found interspersed amongst its historic districts, cobblestone streets, and antebellum homes. The statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson, among others on Monument Avenue and beyond, were fixtures of the city’s image and culture. Since the protests over the murder of George Floyd, they’ve been toppled and hauled away.
As charmingly antiquated as they seemed to a young college student in the late 1980s, living for the first time in a southern city, these monuments were in reality a picturesque veneer that concealed the painful and lingering scars of racial oppression. The movement to remove them helped me, like many Americans, to appreciate how memorials represent complex negotiations between the past and present and to think more about who we memorialize and why.
Well before I ever stepped foot on the soil of my ancestral homeland, I was aware of the vital role the arts played in the life of Armenia. Yet on every visit, as I meander through the streets of Yerevan, its capital, I am still struck by the abundance of statues honoring Armenia’s national heroes. Crowding the city’s center, some lay hidden amidst leafy oases, while others command public gardens or anchor a major square. Many stand guard before important civic buildings, asserting their dominion with watchful eyes. They have helped me to both navigate my way around the city and learn my people’s history. But years after my first impressions, as a result of the statue removals back home, I began to see Armenia’s monuments differently.
Recalling Yerevan’s civic sculptures in light of the upheavals in the United States, I was struck by how many of its national heroes are not statesmen or military men, but men of culture. Scattered throughout the city’s bustling cafes and intersections at short distances from one another, statues representing individuals who played pivotal roles in Armenian Christian history include Gregory of Tatev, Mkhitar Gosh, and Mesrop Mashtots. On a daily walk one encounters Armenian cultural icons from the worlds of music (Sayat Nova, Aram Khachaturian, Arno Babajanian) visual arts (Toros Roslin, Hovhannes (Ivan) Aivazovsky, Martiros Saryan), and literary arts (Hovhannes Tumanyan, Yeghishe Charents, William Saroyan). The roster of creative luminaries spans an extensive number of disciplines including not only art and religion but also philosophy, education, history, linguistics, and science. Non-Armenians, such as Anton Chekhov and Alexander Pushkin, make an appearance in Yerevan’s Kentron (central district) as well, reminders of Russia’s hegemony over Armenia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The quiet dignity portrayed through the statues of both literary giants stands in stark contrast to another Russian contribution—the decaying remnants of the Soviet-era apartment buildings that dominate the cityscape.
Yerevan’s gallery of illustrious creatives pays homage to individual acts of artistic, intellectual, and political courage. Many fought against societal constraints, overturned limitations on creative expression, challenged established norms, and questioned the prevailing ideologies of their day. And paying tribute to their memory is intrinsically linked to recognizing Armenia’s enduring legacy of resistance against oppression throughout the centuries. Their images help us identify the spirit of creative rebellion in the individual with the historical resistance of a nation to occupying powers and the aggressions of neighboring states. And though Yerevan, like Washington, DC and Richmond, also boasts war memorials, statues of modern political leaders and revolutionaries, they are overshadowed by men who composed symphonies and wrote plays: the kinds of heroes that are most loved by locals and diasporans alike.
By contrast, the first comprehensive survey of public monuments in the US, known as the National Monument Audit, conducted by the nonprofit group Monument Lab, highlights the prevalence of monuments commemorating violent events. The audit examined nearly half a million records to provide a detailed view of public monuments across various disciplines. Among its key findings is that “the most common features of American monuments reflect war and conquest.” The report concludes that monuments frequently perpetuate inequalities and injustices, thereby misrepresenting the nation’s history.
If monuments are built to commemorate and honor what a society considers important to its collective identity, one might assume Americans identify strongly with military figures and political leaders. But if we don’t, why are their images so widespread? And what are the implications for any society that emphasizes monuments to power and domination over imagination and the arts?
By contrast, in Yerevan’s memorials I find the embodiment of a religious spirit that has resisted and confronted unjust rule and political aggression. The archetypal model, of course, is the life of Jesus of Nazareth who challenged authority, rebuked those in power, and resisted the status quo, particularly the religious leaders of his time. Armenia adopted Christianity as the state religion in the early fourth century, making it the world’s first officially Christian nation. The Armenian Apostolic Church, with its ancient pedigree and traditions, has served as a cornerstone for artistic expression, language, symbols, and customs. Christian values of compassion, justice, and solidarity resonate strongly in Armenian culture and intellectual discourse, recalling Christ’s challenge to the Pharisees and high priests with creative parables and bold critique. These values are often reflected in the works of Armenian writers and philosophers, who explore themes of ethics and social justice. Artists and intellectuals frequently draw from this religious heritage to explore and express a distinctively Armenian outlook on human experience. And the nation’s Christian identity has proven to be a powerful bulwark against hostile forces that aimed to subjugate its people and a beacon of hope in the face of a series of enemies that include the Ottoman Turks whose oppression culminated in the Genocide of 1915, the Soviet Union throughout the twentieth century, or, more recently, the autocratic regime of Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, against the Armenians of Artsakh.
I would not want to portray Yerevan’s memorial landscape as free of shortcomings. These include a scarcity of statues depicting women, insufficient public involvement in monument decisions, poor sitting, oversaturation, incomplete or inaccurate historical narratives, dogmatism, banal forms or derivative styles and other aesthetic deficiencies. Despite these flaws, Yerevan’s distinctive feature lies in its unwavering commitment to immortalizing its men of culture.
The statues of Armenia’s cultural giants embody a distinctive form of heroism characterized by creative acts as forms of rebellion. This suggests another, better way: not dominance but imagination. Thus, its men of stone and bronze highlight the sociopolitical and spiritual dimensions of the creative act. At its best, a Christian vision might imagine statues of prominent Americans the same way. Commemorating not just achievement, but also creative resistance to systems of power.