Until the other day, I’d never heard of Thomas J. Price, a black British sculptor who, it turns out, is an absolute genius. No, not an artistic genius – a genius at exploiting today’s vile, vapid cultural politics for fame and profit.
On June 25, the Guardian ran a glowing article by Senay Boztas about Price’s latest masterpiece: a 13-foot high bronze statue entitled Moments Contained that, since June 2, has been standing in front of the central railway station in Rotterdam. Now, whom would you expect to be memorialized in this way in such a prominent location in that city? A few years back, my first guess would’ve been Erasmus, the Renaissance humanist who was born there in 1466. My own choice would’ve been Pim Fortuyn, the martyred patriot and critic of Islam who spent much of his career as a professor in the Netherlands’ second-largest city.
But no. Price’s statue, as Senay Boztas writes enthusiastically, doesn’t represent “a man who did something, a naked white sylph or someone’s colonial hero.” Instead, it depicts “an ordinary-looking black woman.” Ample-breasted, her hair in a bun, she’s dressed in what looks like a t-shirt and track pants. Her hands, apparently clenched into fists, are in her pants pockets. Legs spread, she leans back in a way that will look familiar to anybody who’s ever seen a certain type of black woman being, shall we say, ingracious with a store clerk. Her stance, and her facial expression, are defiant, challenging. She seems to be saying, “Don’t f*** with me.”
According to Price, Moments Contained portrays “a fictional character intended to connect.” It seeks “to critique this idea of status and value within society: who gets to be seen, to be represented.” And it’s intended “to make viewers more aware of what we’ve been told about power, materials and value.” Marjolijn van der Meijden, who advises the city on public art, appreciatively notes that it “isn’t an exalted representation of someone exotic. It’s just yourself, how you are, not a ‘super’ version. And how many images of black women are there?”
That’s the big lie here: that in the Western world, in the year 2023, black women are powerless, invisible, unrepresented, unlauded. The truth, of course, is the total opposite. We live in a time when, solely on the grounds of their sex and race, staggeringly incompetent women of color like Kamala Harris and Karine Jean-Pierre have been lifted to heights of political power far beyond their levels of competency. A time when black actresses are hired to play white historical figures like Anne Boleyn and Cleopatra. A time when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is making even more roles for blacks and women a prerequisite for Oscar consideration, even though minorities, these days, seem, if anything, overrepresented in film and TV.
One example: in the U.S., black people, and especially black women, are far more visible in TV commercials than in the actual population. And they’re always portrayed positively. Believe it or not, this overrepresentation is even more dramatic in the two European countries I know best, the Netherlands, where blacks form a mere 2.8% of the population, and Norway, where they’re 2.5% – but where a foreigner monitoring TV commercials might reasonably conclude that both nations are, at the very least, a third black.
Why such crazy numbers? In the U.S., leftists contend that even today the legacy of slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow impedes black success and that it’s their sacred duty to overcome this impediment. Nonsense. But even more absurd is the exportation of this white guilt to Europe. Consider this: at the site of Moments Contained, Boztas met art students from a school that’s already put Price’s statue on its curriculum. Not its art curriculum, mind you: its “curriculum on the Netherlands’ history of colonialism and slavery.” Never mind that the Dutch Empire overwhelmingly exploited Indonesians – a small, slightly built people who could scarcely look less like Price’s full-figured black woman.
As noted, Price says his statue is of a “fictional character.” So is the Statue of Liberty. But the latter represents something noble. Price’s black woman has nothing noble about her. You’d never take her for Barbara Jordan or Ethel Waters or Zora Neale Hurston. On the contrary, she’s plainly intended to be emblematic of the near-feral subset of black women who, in the post-George Floyd era, have committed arson, looted stores, defecated on sidewalks, and harmed innocent fellow citizens because they’ve been told by the likes of Ibram X. Kendi that they’re eternal victims who owe nothing and are owed everything.
And that’s exactly what this statue comes down to. It’s a piece of art that is congratulating black women – and not just black women, but the very worst of black women – simply for being black women. And in that sense it’s a quintessential artifact of this perverse era of ours when individual virtue or iniquity counts for nothing and identity-group membership is all – this era when no attribute is more commended than blackness, and when being a black woman, and hence a victim of intersectional oppression, is particularly wonderful.
As it happens, Price’s statue was donated to the city by a foundation whose director, Wim Pijbes, maintains that it “spoke to him the moment he saw it.” Spoke to him how? His answer: “I’m an art historian, so I am aware of Black Lives Matter and toppling sculptures.” For Pijbes, in other words, this artwork’s appeal is, quite explicitly, that it celebrates the kind of person whom you can picture as a BLM member, razing statues of Washington or Lincoln – or, to switch to a Dutch context, of Rembrandt or Spinoza. And that’s why he liked it.
In Western Europe, many people who fret about the continent’s current demographic trends have been called racists and accused of embracing the so-called “replacement theory” – that is, the idea that a majority white Western Europe will soon be mostly non-white. As it happens, Rotterdam’s native Dutch population is already well below 50%. Most of the non-Dutch residents, in Rotterdam as elsewhere in the Netherlands, are Muslims, relatively few of whom would be considered black. And that Muslim population, alas, far from being a blessing to the country, has been, to put it mildly, a financial burden and a sociocultural nightmare.
So it’s illuminating to read that when Ahmed Aboutaleb, Rotterdam’s mayor, who is Muslim himself, unveiled Moments Contained, he declared with manifest satisfaction that Price’s woman is not someone with “an illustrious past” but is, rather, “the future, our future, and this city is her home.” How to understand Aboutaleb’s statement as anything other than a happy acknowledgment that Rotterdam’s future is non-white – and that that future belongs, moreover, not to robust, imaginative people of color who will sustain the Dutch heritage of liberty, prosperity, and cultural and scientific triumphs but to semi-civilized miscreants who are consumed by irrational anger, a sense of entitlement and anti-white bigotry?
Alas, Aboutaleb is almost certainly right: Price’s statue, in all likelihood, offers a portent not just of Rotterdam’s future but of Western Europe’s. But far from being something to cheer, it’s a dire warning of truly terrible times to come.