Public Feeling: Rethinking Memorials and Monuments

VALIE EXPORT, Heldenplatz (Hero's Square) 1, 1982. Part of Body Configurations series

In August, the planned removal of a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia sparked protests by white supremacists ending in violence. The following weeks saw a national conversation that continues today over the place of monuments to historical figures from the confederacy, colonialism, and other injustices in American history in contemporary public spaces, even prompting some cities to remove such monuments from city centers. Public sculpture, which so often becomes invisible in the daily life of the city, seems to become hyper-visible in heated debates that mirror larger cultural divides. Controversies over Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981-1989) and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial (1982) are only the most widely known of a long list of public artworks that sparked controversy long before the recent debates.

Beyond acting as lightning rod for continued social and political divisions today, might there also be other cultural shifts related to monuments and memorials in public space at play? How have the affective and performative dimensions of public commemoration further informed the nature of this discussion? The current outcry echoes a twentieth century critique of monumentality, but also connects to how we understand new memorials in public space today. Recent literature on the contemporary memorial landscape from the field of art history engages with the shifting terrain of public feeling and performative utterances in the increasingly mediated contemporary city, analyzing both its pitfalls and its strengths in countering the presumed monolithic power of the monument.

In the middle of the twentieth century, monuments were often seen by artists and thinkers as sources of suspicion. As early as 1938 Lewis Mumford proclaimed the “death of the monument,” seeing its process of “architectural mummification” as anathema to a modern form of memory defined by an archive of still and moving photographic images and recorded sound.1Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1938), 438. In the 1960s, Claes Oldenberg proposed colossal interventions in the city that would critique and disrupt the traditional monument’s monolithic presence, and photographer Lee Friedlander’s series American Monument questioned the continued presence of figurative sculptures lurking amongst indifferent city dwellers. Indeed, key artistic practices of public monument making in the middle decades of the twentieth century followed suit: in the U.S. “living memorials” in the form of useful public buildings were preferred to war monuments after World War II; “counter-monuments” that used strategies of ephemerality and viewer response over monolithic statements appeared in Europe and North America; and the privileging of the term “memorial” over “monument” shifted the discussion away from timeless objects of veneration and towards a diverse set of practices of communal grief and remembrance.

Oldenburg and Friedlander’s respective proposals did not cease all creation of new permanent memorial structures (be they architectural or figurative). In fact, from the 1990s to today, quite the opposite has been true, as public symbolic spaces like the National Mall and its surroundings in Washington, D.C. have seen a steep increase in memorials. The re-emergence of permanent, architectural memorials in public spaces in the past three decades signals more than a reaction against the counter-monumental sentiment of the postwar period; it indicates a new field of cultural and social feeling in public space. Art historians Erika Doss, Harriet Senie, and Mechtild Widrich have each written significant texts in the last decade historicizing this trend, critiquing its political implications, and offering potential new futures for memorialization in public space.

Erika Doss’s book Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (University of Chicago, 2010) analyzes the dramatic increase in the commissioning and creation of permanent public memorials in the U.S. in the end of the twentieth century and the opening decades of the twenty-first, paralleling what Andreas Huyssen coined the “memory boom.” Doss looks to how this recent “obsession with issues of memory and the desire to express and claim them in visibly public contexts” illustrates heightened anxieties about American identity as conditioned by “the affective conditions of public life in America today: by the fevered pitch of feelings such as grief, gratitude, fear, shame, and anger.”2Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 2. Her study critiques the presentism of the current memorial boom, but also demonstrates how affect can be productive in memorials like The AIDS Memorial Quilt (1987-ongoing).

Similarly investigating how recent memorial practices relate to the contested terrain of American identity, Harriet Senie’s book Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11 (Oxford University Press, 2016) critiques the propensity to conflate victims and heroes, distancing tragic death from historical context. She argues that through “strategies of diversion and denial” major memorials to Americans killed in the Vietnam War, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine mass shooting, and the attacks of 9/11 are examples of the “emerging paradigm of the memorial/cemetery hybrid.”3Harriet F. Senie, Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 5. Both Senie and Doss incorporate significant consideration of the phenomenon of immediate memorials as well as permanent structures, connecting ephemeral affective practices in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy with the processes of selection and commissioning for permanent memorials intended to represent an event to future generations. Senie’s study is particularly incisive in its critique of the overly privileged position of the families of victims in recent memorial committees. While certainly not arguing for their exclusion, Senie is suspect of claims that giving significant power over the final design of a memorial to grieving family members is somehow democratic. On the use of this practice in creating the Oklahoma City National Memorial she writes, “the foundation of democracy…rests on the premise of an informed citizenry, not an emotionally wounded one.”4Ibid., 93. Strategies of experiential re-enactment and spiritual healing in contemporary memorials to tragic events foreclose any potential critical reassessment of the event, and Senie argues for a more dialogic and historically attuned practice of memorial building.

In addition to the vernacular practices of immediate memorials, other ephemeral forms of art inform contemporary memorial creation, like film, video, and performance art. In Performative monuments: The rematerialisation of public art (Manchester University Press, 2014) Mechtild Widrich examines the shifting conception of the monument outside of the United States, focusing on central European public monuments designed by or with inspiration from performance art in the public sphere in the 1960s and 70s. She uses the term “monument” from the German term Denkmal, which translates to “monument,” but literally means a prompt to think. Widrich’s work hinges on speech-act theory of J.L. Austin, arguing “the contemporary monument does not ‘tell’ political facts, but engages audiences in forming new ones.”5Mechtild Widrich, Performative Monuments: The Rematerialisation of Public Art (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 9. The performances of Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT feature prominently in Widrich’s dissection of how performance, documentation, and public space expand the performative beyond the artist’s body. Like Doss and Senie, Widrich sees potential danger in the performative monument, especially in its permanent and architectural iterations. She concludes with a critique of both Jochen Gerz’s Monument against Fascism (1986) and Peter Eisenman’s Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005), two works that though outwardly dismantling “the authoritarian claim of monumental architecture” merely cater to calls to public participation and viewer experience without compelling viewers to take responsibility for the past and ownership of the future.6Ibid., 178.

As recent scholarship (of which the above is only a small sample) suggests, the affective and performative contours of public life in the city have fundamentally altered the nature of new permanent monuments and memorial structures in public space. These books not only offer a useful historical and critical framework for contemporary memorial practices, but they can also help us productively shift the terms of the debate over confederate monuments. In addition to connecting to the broader struggle against the racism and racist violence these monuments stand for, the emotional and performative demonstrations against confederate monuments connect to a public expectation that our public monuments incorporate our experiences and feelings. Looking ahead, hopefully new strategies for these symbolic spaces will not simply divert or occlude difficult histories, but find ways to contextualize them for the public to take ownership of the past and engage in the creation of more democratic futures.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1938), 438.
2. Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 2.
3. Harriet F. Senie, Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 5.
4. Ibid., 93.
5. Mechtild Widrich, Performative Monuments: The Rematerialisation of Public Art (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 9.
6. Ibid., 178.

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