potentially the most subversive (and unintentional) conceptual art move in the world

Amid our bombardment with examples of politically instrumental memorials this week, I would like to posit one more. Allow me to regale you with a tale of when I found myself in Skopje, Macedonia—the first stop on my tour de cheapest Air BnB rates in Eastern Europe. It would have been even cheaper too had I taken the man I sat next to on the plane up on his offer to let me stay at his house, but movies like Taken and Hostile have ruined random international acts of kindness for me.

As a result of my trust issues, I found myself wandering uninformed through a landscape of Cyrillic-labeled but Turkish-looking food, the best damn coffee I’ve ever had, and literally hundreds of obscure monuments. I assumed that all these statues must have some rich and contested history—as similar looking statues do in the US—and marveled at their concentration in one location. None seemed to have explanatory labels, but perhaps all were readily recognizable to someone more educated on Macedonian history and culture than I was.

The next day, I left the city with a massive, jovial, and ruggedly attractive guide named Jane, who informed me that contrary to my initial assumption, the many monuments in Skopje were brand new and had little to no basis in Macedonian culture or history. He explained that their placement was a strategic ploy by the Macedonian government to increase tourism and boost the tiny, struggling economy. Jane remarked snidely that most of the country lacked paved roads, yet the government had hundreds of millions of dollars to sink into meaningless entertainment for tourists.

I think this example compliments our readings not just by adding an international example to a heavily US-based narrative, but also to complicate the idea of memorials as instrumental to historical narrative. The memorials in Skopje create the illusion of a grand national past that is almost entirely fictional. It serves as an index of a hypothetical national identity rather than an educational purpose for an ignorant or uncritical audience—a motivation that I think is also at play in American monuments. Not unlike strategic selfie lighting, memorials help us depict the identity of a place the way we would like it to be seen.

Ken Gonzales-Day, Kerry James Marshall and Photography as Memory/Memorial

In reading the chapter in Memorial Mania on shame and Ken Gonzales-Day’s project “Erased Lynchings,” I was reminded of Kerry James Marshall’s “Heirlooms and Accessories.” Marshall’s piece takes an image of a double lynching in Indiana, reducing it to near invisibility and drawing attention to three women by placing their images in a locket. Marshall wanted viewers to look at this scene of violence and brutality and consider the implications of what’s being represented and the ways in which it is a spectacle. He says:

“The thing that is the most striking about the image is not so much the brutality, but the casualness with which the audience are there as witnesses, how little regard for the rule of law, how immune they felt from prosecution. So instead of dwelling on lynching, on the brutality of it, that’s the thing that struck me the most. Just how ordinary this all seemed as a spectacle.”

In Memorial Mania, Doss writes that “While there is no ontological basis for photography’s privileged status as ‘a direct transcription of the real,’ particularly since photos can be manipulated and manipulate their viewers, photos are still generally and uncritically perceived as inherently ‘truthful.’” (Kindle location 4965) With this quote in mind, how do Gonzales-Day and Marshall’s work grip us as truthful? Are they more “accurate” than the original images? Do they serve as a kind of memorial or undo typical ideas of memory?

Frozen in Time

This week’s readings on memorials by Erika Doss and Scott Sandage were really thought provoking and made me reconsider past readings from previous classes, especially Trouillot’s Silencing the Past.  What I would like to address is the inherent nature of the memorial. It is a material, physical object imbued with complex and conflicting memories of an important event or figure meant to outlast the constraints of human mortality and memory loss. To stand the test of time, memorials are unchanging, fixtures of the national or communal landscape; a rigid and tidy keepsake of memories meant to be viewed from a distance. And, yet, what puzzles me is that the very nature of the events or figures that we tend to memorialize is their significance and the reverberations they send into the future. If we memorialize a moment in time, do we shift the responsibility of remembering onto a material object and shrug off the burden and the implications of these memories? Once a memorial is constructed and finalized, do we then write off that memory and its future consequences?

Trouillot discusses this problem when he addresses Disney’s potential slavery-theme park. By making a theme park to commemorate slavery, Disney, he posits, was rendering slavery to an isolated and distant time in the past, not an atrocity that has had continuous consequences into the present. A theme park in of itself is meant to serve as another realm of reality, but is not our American reality still impacted by the legacy of slavery?

Sandage’s also grapples with this problem, as did we during Matt’s presentation on MLK, when he writes, “King’s induction into the pantheon of official memory threatens to construct a new national savior whose work is, of course, finished” (165). Does King’s memorial serve as proof that the civil rights struggle can now be relegated to the past? This, I believe, is the dangerous nature of the memorial; it tends to freeze a moment in time.

 

Memorial Mania on College Campuses?

I’m fascinated this week by the combination between commemoration as a physical presence (in the construction of memorials, as Doss discusses) and an experiential one (in Sandage’s article on protests during the Civil Rights Movement.) It’s one thing to focus on the ways in the constructed presence or its intended narrative, as Gopnik does in his criticisms of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. However,  it’s quite another issue to think of the constructed presence as something on which we present our feelings, interpretations, and constructed legacies. While the readings this week have focused primarily on the physical constructions of representations of the past (aside from Sandage), I’m curious more directly how politics of memory influence the celebrations/protests/events that occur around the physical memorials.

There are a lot of different ways to go about this – I’ll stick with protests. Politicization of statues, buildings, and monuments has been an increasingly prevalent theme in recent years. I’m reminded of #RhodesMustFall at University of Cape Town, where students used a protest for removal of a statue to push for wider decolonization of the university. I’m thinking of the recent change of Calhoun College at Yale to Grace Murray Hopper College being part of a larger conversation around the history of slavery and reparations in prominent universities. Amherst College recently took efforts to change their (unofficial) mascot from the Jeffs, a reference to Lord Jeffrey Amherst.  Sandage’s argument places  Lincoln (and the Lincoln Memorial) as a positive piece of symbolism on which black activists projected the growing Civil Rights movement. Now, though, we see a shift to view these figures negatively, and are perhaps more transparent/explicit  in the use of these political symbols of (white) men to make connections to decolonization and racial justice.

I’m also noticing as I write this that the examples I first reach for around memory and memorialization are university-related. I’m sure that’s partially due to my own news-related biases, getting most of my information from professors and academic-minded sources. But I also wonder if that points to the ways in which universities – public and private – use monuments or memorials to establish a legacy parallel to that of a larger, national one. What’s the role of memorial mania on this campus? On any campus? And what’s the role of students, faculty, and staff to acknowledge/challenge these politics around physical constructs?

Is “Public Art” Possible?

Erika Doss’ framing of statues and memorials as “public art” made me rethink our previous discussion on art and publics. I was suspicious then and continue to wonder whether the concept of “public art” is a contradiction in terms.

Last time, we talked about the “right process” for selecting and installing public art. I take Hilde Hein’s definition, which rules out the many art pieces that are simply decorative assertions by private players in public places. Her definition favors the more intentional and social curation of art that “constructs a public” through a “shaping event.” (67-68) Still, I think it’s worth considering whether this kind of professionally-overseen “public art” is impossible. Here are a few contentions/problems I’ve been thinking about along these lines…

  • Public art invites ideological control. Doss observes, “the pace of commemoration has quickened, and the number of memorials has escalated, because growing numbers of Americans view public art as a particularly powerful vehicle of visibility and authority.” (37) This means that in the making of public art, public debates over history, values, and national symbols end in the final expression of the winner’s taste. And the winner, most likely, reinforces dominant racial, class, gender and political ideologies.
  • Public art appropriates public resources. In a sense, public art simply steals public space (and often money) for uses determined by a smaller segment of that public. For instance, a statue in a public park turns space previously available to members of the public for whatever uses they choose over to a specialized public that deems itself worthy of making decisions on the public’s behalf. So, the result is less public space.
  • Public art reasserts cultural hierarchy. The Mary Mullen argument: if public art (or commemoration) requires negotiation among private, non-profit, and government partners who manage public sites, it is more likely that the preferences of curators, academics, artists, and other “experts” will determine the outcome.

These problems certainly don’t gaurantee negative outcomes. And I think, on the whole, they are worth working through. But it is also worth recognizing that all of these elements, to some extent, undermine the public: less choice, less space, less participation. It is difficult to create or commission “public art” or commemorations because they exist organically. Public art manifests in graffiti walls, sidewalk chalk mosaics, the ephemeral memorials Doss studies, and street performance (like the Wisconsin Solidarity Singers). If we want to encourage art and commemoration in public, should we offer more blank canvasses for making, rather than making “public art”?

Images and Mythmaking

“For some scholars, public historical imagery supplies the myths and symbols that hold diverse groups in political society together.” –  David Glassberg, Public History and the Study of Memory

As I considered the question “how are myths made?,” which accompanied the readings for this week, I spent a lot of time thinking about the relation between image and myth, especially as it relates to American History.

During my time as an educator at the Brooklyn Museum I often taught from Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington, a large scale image of Washington in the heroic pose of an orator.  When it was first created in 1796  the painting was copied many times and circulated widely with versions of the painting now hanging in the White House and in the National Portrait gallery. It has become one of the quintessential depictions of the first president. The portrait shows Washington dressed as a middle class man and surrounded by symbols of the American Republic (the flag, the eagle, copies of the Constitution and a history of the American Revolution), and was designed to heroicize Washington and promote the ideals of democracy.

“George Washington” by Gilbert Stuart. 1796

In many ways, heroic depictions of founding fathers by Stuart and other artists helped to create and solidify the mythic images we have of those figures today.  These works, including John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence and Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, have become the dominant images of historical figures and events and appear in textbooks and on American currency.

The reverse of the two dollar bill, which features John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence”, created between 1817 and 1819.
The reverse of the New Jersey state quarter. The image is based on Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware”, painted in 1851

That said, many of these popular depictions were created years after the subjects died and inaccurately portray historical events. As I think about images and the relation they have to mythmaking I wonder:

What role do dominant images of historical figures and events have on shaping the dominant narrative of those figures and events?

Also:

Most of the images we associate with the founding fathers lionize and even deify them. How does being surrounded by aggrandizing images of historical figures make it more difficult to accept revisionist histories of these figures?

Revising Public History?

This week’s reading centers on public history and memory. Questions raised and discussed by Glassberg, Hall and others regarding how ideas about history change over time, how public memory is created, and how politics, public culture, academia and individuals play a role in shaping and reshaping public history are very inspiring. A recent issue in China about revising textbook language in relation to Chinese Anti-Japanese War can be a good example for this week’s topic.

China’s Ministry of Education announced in early January this year that starting in the spring semester of 2017, China’s textbooks will adopt the phrase “14-year Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression,” marking a revision to the current wording—8 years’ resistance against Japanese Aggression, which has been adopted for over 70 years. Previously, the war’s beginning had been traced to the Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937, and this revision states that the war actually started in the fall of 1931—six years longer than they had originally taught—when the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Manchuria. Then why made the change? How did it happen? And why now? This change in public history, in my understanding, is an intertwining of politics, popular culture, historians and individual/collective memories.

This revision is intended for political benefits. First and foremost to legitimate and highlight the Communist Party’s “core role” in resisting Japanese fascism. Previously, many historians both in and outside of China believed that the Nationalist party instead of the Communist party did most of the fighting, though the public was brainwashed to believe the opposite. This decision to add six years to the war will demonstrate that the communist party had begun to resist the Japanese in Manchuria as early as 1931, as many communist party members belonged to this Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army. In the current political climate, this revision is sought to promote patriotic education , encourage anti-Japanese sentiment and rally support for the party among young people.

This revision is also intended to justify the mainstream narrative of the communist party as the leading role in anti-Japanese war in popular culture. Apart from textbooks, mass media, TV series and movies all promote Communist Party as largely responsible for victory over Japan, downplaying the Nationalists’ heavy contribution. This revision will enhance the image of the Communists and their achievements in World War II, continuing the distorted narratives to their own purposes.

However, this revision is made with joint efforts from historians and scholars. Though the party exaggerated its accomplishment in the war, it is agreed among scholars that China’s resistance to Japanese invasion began in 1931. Considering the size of the Anti-Japanese War in both civilians and militaries involved and their casualties, as well as its significance during WWII, Chinese scholars argued that the generally believed beginning date of WWII starting 1September 1939 with the invasion of Poland is Eurocentric, and it should start with the beginning of the Pacific War in 1937, when large-scale anti-Japanese aggression began in China.

This revision is also accomplished with the support of people in Manchuria and welcomed by local history teachers. The previous official account of the war beginning in 1937 conflicted with local people’s actual memory and history living under Japanese invasion, who had started their resistance as early as 1931. History teachers at local middle schools also welcomed the revision and expressed how frustrated they once were to explain  to students the conflicts in public history between compulsory textbooks and their students’ individual family experiences.

Glassberg on moving from production to reception

Glassberg’s attention to the reception of historical knowledge offers a helpful counterpart to our previous discussions on the production and reproduction history. It is easy for scholars to become so fixated on the meta-analysis of a given historic site (or classroom, or movie) that we forget that the narratives we identify are not always the narratives with which people walk away.

Glassberg’s article reminded me of a particular moment from a field trip I took in college. At a historical site in Ohio, my classmates and I went through a simulation of the Underground Railroad wherein we were the runaway slaves. As part of our early orientation, we were “sold” away–news we received from an Irish indentured servant who had previously worked above us in some supervisory capacity. My first thought had been that encountering this white ethnic laborer emphasized the racial hierarchy that conferred special privileges on European indentured laborers (the Irishman was working toward his release) while consistently reserving the most inhumane degradation for enslaved black people. But another man on our tour had taken that moment to tell his daughter, “See, that’s important to remember: Irish people were slaves too.” For him, the presence of an Irish laborer had neutralized the racism of slavery by positioning us as equals.

There is much to unpack in such an exercise, but I think it illustrates the extent to which our previous orientations to history condition the ways in which we consume new knowledge. Or, as Glassberg puts is, how learning “changes as audiences actively reinterpret what they see and hear by placing it in alternative contexts derived from diverse social backgrounds.”

This also speaks to what I think is a much bigger problem for scholars: it is much easier to assess the damaging, or heartening, messages communicated by a particular idea or cultural text than to account for the human responses they elicit. It seems to be especially difficult for historians, grasping for patterns and explanations in what are always more complicated histories, to grapple with incoherent and changing  ideologies, or to understand how people can hold multiple truths quite unbothered by their contradictions. Perhaps it is a matter of putting humans back into history (and history museums).

Collective Memory and Myths

A key component to public history is recognizing the power dynamics that control the narrative of history. As Glassberg writes, “a civil-religion approach that emphasizes public history’s role in holding political society together tends to overlook how dissenting voices view experience, the historical visions of minorities, and conflicts over the construction and dissemination of a public history” (13). While collective memory is crucial to public history, historically it’s the memory of privileged communities that’s displayed in museums and public spaces. In recent years the solution has been to build separate institutions devoted to various communities histories and cultures (NMAAHC, NMAI). These spaces give power to collective memories previously silenced in history. But, what about opposing collective memories regarding a singular event? The question then becomes: is it possible to display multiple communities’ disparate memories under one roof? Interestingly, museums devoted to the Civil War that were once separate institutions recently joined under a single umbrella to become one institution. The Museum of the Confederacy (founded in 1896) joined the American Civil War Center at Tredegar (founded in 2006) to offer what public historians hope will be a more unified history experience of the Civil War in Richmond. The Museum of the Confederacy was created at the height of the “Lost Cause” mentality that perpetuated a myth of the South that never was. Preserved by women devoted to the “Lost Cause” it became home to thousands of relics of the Confederacy. Now it’s merged with the American Civil War Center, a site that takes a neutral stance on the Civil War, though firmly states that slavery was the cause of that conflict. Two museums founded with opposing memories and ideologies under one roof. This merger was not met without protests. Confederate heritage organizations protested the joint museum endeavor and called for the executive director’s removal. Despite the protests however, the Museum of the Confederacy and Civil War Center partnership is an interesting example of two different archives, boards of directors, and ideas about history coming together to combat the myths of the Confederacy and to forge a new collective memory of the Civil War in Richmond.

Myth in Media

How does pop culture reinforce/ reconstruct myths of American history? Can modern myths even be created or exist outside of pop culture media outlets?

I was thinking of my own experiences working at sites of American history as I read Glassberg’s piece, particularly how visitors often came to the John Adams home with “memories” from watching an HBO series or reading a popular biography. Many were nostalgic for places they had never been, and often described to me scenes from the HBO series (which was not filmed at the historic location, but most thought that is was). I never watched the HBO series, but after a few months of working at this historic home, I felt like I had!

Glassberg poses the question, “Will mass culture in the next century prove to be a more powerful force than the nation-state in the twentieth century for the standardization of public historical imagery?” (Glassberg 14). It seems to me that mass culture and divided politics (more than a singular nation-state) work together to create imagery that builds into myth and nostalgia. Still,  the mass culture piece often comes first. People visit the Grange (Hamilton’s home) because they have seen the musical; they do not see Hamilton because of a prior love for Hamilton the man. The same was true at the historic home where I worked, and so visitors often had the same mass-produced views of the story that they were not necessarily looking to change. Interpreters at recognizable historic sites have always been faced with myths of the history, but I wonder how myths created by mass culture interact with historic sites differently than myth passed down through generations that did not create specific images. Mass culture creates the imagery of the place, while myths picked up in reading or conversation leave the visual to each individual. 

Note that the picture above of the HBO John Adams series is not at the historic home in Massachusetts, but actually filmed in Canada and Virginia.