Recasting the Stones

The corner of Ludlow and Rivington, a slightly run-down intersection on Manhattan's Lower East Side, is not a place where you would expect to find a profound statement about the relationship between public art and memory. Yet every night for three weeks last October, as a thin blue laser beam silently wrote out the dreams and memories of the neighborhood's ethnically mixed inhabitants on tenement walls, otherwise nondescript buildings became reanimated by history. Visitors walk ed up and down the street, talking and pointing to the moving beam as it scrolled across the wall in five different languages. "I remember the Jewish church on Rivington. I was 17 years old when I saw it for the first time. I am 72 years old now," the beam wrote across old bricks and above open windows. "I remember when we lived in a tenement on the top floor in very bad condition. It was like a dream. . . ." On the first night, a woman who saw her own words appear on the walls cried, "Here it is, it's my life before me."

"Between Dreams and His tory," backed by the public art organization Creative Time, was the project of the renowned installation artist and photographer Shimon Attie, best known for his public art projects in Europe (which are beautifully photographed and captured in the recently published Sites Unseen). After spending months interviewing Lower East Side residents and researching the history of each block, Attie, a former psychotherapist, asked members of the community to write down their recollections of the neighborhood, as well as of their childhood poems, dreams, and superstitions. In "peeling back the wallpaper of today to reveal the histories buried underneath," Attie discovered a reservoir of shared memories and aspirations among residents otherwise divided by age, race, and nationality. When these memories and hopes were projected in blue laser script on the neighborhood walls, they created a living, public record of both the community's collective identity and the individual identities that comprised it.

"Between Dreams and History" goes to the heart of a larger debate within Amer ican public life: How do we publicly acknowledge a variety of competing traditions and yet still weave them into a coherent framework of national memory? The ongoing discussion over how best to package and present our national history—at monuments, in museums, through popular culture—has recently been mired in a morass of politically charged epithets like "political correctness," "multiculturalism," and "revisionism." The dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982 and the allegedly "unpatriotic" Enola Gay exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum in 1995 sent veterans groups into paroxysms of rage. One angry observer charged that the construction of a proposed monument to the Am erican Indians who died on the Little Bighorn Battlefield would be tantamount to "handing the Viet nam War memorial over to the Vietnam ese."

But as the definition of the groups worthy of commemoration inevitably expands to include those long excluded from the public political landscape, the claims for recognition and a place in the historical memory of the nation only grow louder and more insistent. And in today's high-stakes game of political commemoration, we often seem to believe that the litmus test for social enfranchisement and cultural legitimacy is to be found in the past and in the monuments and memorials that have for so long served as external markers for the inner life of our nation.

While in the past, monuments were the most recognizable means of unifying a community and promoting reconciliation or a particularly cherished civic virtue—bravery, fortitude, tolerance, or "worker solidarity"—they can have quite the opposite effect when removed from their original contexts. This conundrum stems in part from the cardinal assumption underlying traditional monuments—that they embody universal, timeless ideals arising out of some common tradition. When the passage of time reveals the transitory nature of the ideals the monuments were supposed to immortalize, the monuments themselves may come into question. In fact, the fractious debates about existing and proposed new monuments raise the disconcerting possibility that in our multicultural society, monuments may no longer possess the unifying power they once did.

Civil Wars

Is it even possible to find a truly national identity in yesterday's monuments when changes of regime—or of moral codes, in the case of the American South—have transformed them into unwanted reminders of an ignominious or painful past? In Written in Stone, Sanford Levinson suggests that rather than addressing the greatest challenge facing our multicultural society—namely, how to fashion "unum out of the pluribus of American society"—our efforts at achieving reconciliation through monuments seem to have produced increasingly polarized pockets of unums. Whether the fault lies with the aesthetic and structural limitations of monuments themselves or instead with the new demands of our hypersensitive and politically correct age is unclear. But if in the past monuments were one of the more effective means of publicly affirming communal values or placing an official imprimatur on dominant narratives of history, it seems fairly clear that in today's contentious times they usually seem to underscore the challenge of maintaining a harmonious democratic pluralism.

Monuments to post–Civil War southern white supremacy may seem like clear examples of commemorative symbols that have outlived their time, but attempts at removing offensive or ideologically out-of-date monuments or symbols often generate intense controversy, with the unintended effect of reanimating the very monuments people wanted erased from public consciousness. Such instances have also fed critics' complaints that attempts to "broaden" history more often than not narrow and distort it—a political salvo that was also launched in the mid-1990s at the backers of the much-maligned National History Standards Project at the University of California at Los Angeles and the original Enola Gay exhibit. In further charging that these instances of "historical revisionism" are symptomatic of a pernicious cultural relativism orchestrated by left-leaning iconoclasts, critics of the projects reveal an obstinate unwillingness to consider the inherent subjectivity of memory and the symbols and sites out of which it is constructed.

After all, the monuments under discussion were themselves products of an equally calculated form of "historical revisionism." The Civil War provoked a period of intense monument-building and historical refashioning that lasted from roughly 1870 to 1910 and mirrored the efforts of official Reconstruction policies to remake the country into a nation united. Southerners, still smarting from recent losses and anxious about the prospects for the future, used monuments as a means of preserving their prewar identity, in part by excluding blacks from the public representation of collective memory. Racial issues were mostly kept out of the memorializing debates. As Kirk Savage observes in Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves, white Southerners managed not only to repudiate slavery, the institution that had been central to their society, but also to write it out of their history. They crafted a myth of the "Lost Cause," in which noble southern patriots fought not to protect slavery but to defend states' rights and sovereignty.

Consider the immense 1890 memorial to Robert E. Lee on Richmond's famed Monument Avenue [see graphic, previous page]. Lee, whom one contemporary observer reverently described as "the realized King Arthur," gained symbolic importance after the war as the spiritual and moral leader of the Confederacy. Despite his service to the Confederate South, he was held up as an apolitical, untarnished hero—a figure Northerners could respect, and in whom white Southerners could find a "hero in their own image." And despite the behind-the-scenes negotiations and aggressive politicking of elite groups, the monument was presented as the undiluted and organic expression of the will of the people. The New York Times even embraced the monument as "a national possession." But while post–Civil War monuments may have had, as Savage puts it, "a curious power to erase their own political origins and become sacrosanct" which allowed the South to recast its experience of the war in heroic tones, these monuments also had the perhaps unintended effect of literally engraving in stone the fundamental racial contradictions and failures of Reconstruction. This created an aesthetic barrier to postwar commemoration which made it impossible for the black figure to be the subject of sculpture. Giving black figures equal representation in Reconstruction memorials would have signaled not just a change in the landscape of public sculpture but also a commitment to an idea of equality that people south of the Mason-Dixon Line—and elsewhere—were not yet comfortable with. Even a northern monument such as Thomas Ball's famous 1876 Freedmen's Memorial to Abraham Lincoln could only integrate blacks into the collective memory of the war in the form of the grateful, kneeling slave [see graphic, previ ous page]. The fact that a national monument to African Americans who fought in the Civil War was only unveiled this past summer—and even then after years of struggle—lends credence to Savage's charge that the American monumental landscape (primarily, but not only, in the form of Con federate monuments) still quietly projects a reactionary and exclusionary vision of society.


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But might Savage be underestimating our ability to resist these monuments and their messages—or overestimating how much importance we should ascribe to them—more than a century later? After all, they are only statues.

Of course if that were truly the case, current debates about memorials would not be so acrimonious. Take the case of the New Orleans Liberty Monument, which in 1993 was finally removed from its place on busy Canal Street to a more obscure location. Erected in 1891, the Liberty Monument commemorates the so-called Battle of Liberty Place—an 1874 skirmish between members of the racist White League and an alliance of Republican whites and newly enfranchised African Americans. While the monument included the names of the anti-Reconstruction White Leaguers, it did not until recently include the names of the mostly black militia members who died fighting them. Over the years, various plaques were added to the imposing obelisk alternately affirming or attempting to neutralize the monument's original message. When the whole structure was temporarily removed in 1989, ostensibly to allow for street repairs, preservationists and civil rights activists engaged in opposing rallies. "Take that sucker out in the Atlantic Ocean and dump it," demanded a civil rights activist who believed a monument to white supremacy had no place in a city with a majority African-American population. In response to such sentiments Richard Bell, president of the Louisiana Historical Society, told the Christian Science Monitor that "You can't go around destroying statues and monuments because of the political atmosphere of the day. Where would it end?"

Imagination Failures

Some suggest that the solution is to move forward—to construct new monuments rather than haggle over destroying or relocating the old ones. Savage, for example, ends his book by suggesting that the addition of a life-size monument to Martin Luther King, Jr., at the top of the Lincoln Memorial steps would not detract from the memory of Lincoln but rather would "expand" it in significant ways. Sanford Levinson describes how a proposal to erect a monument in Richmond to late tennis great Arthur Ashe was seen as a way to celebrate the life achievements of an individual and to temper the exclusionary message of Richmond's all-white Monument Avenue—although it, too, generated a maelstrom of controversy. More recently, the historian Eric Foner suggested that building new monuments could be a way of recognizing and respecting the vast array of southern traditions that do not praise secession or slaveholding. Instead of sandblasting Monument Avenue, why not build a monument to the 16 African Americans who were elected to Congress during Reconstruction, or to Gabriel the slave, who in 1800 plotted to liberate his fellow Virginian slaves?

Good idea, in principle. But such an approach could produce a clutter of monuments with a cacophony of unreconciled remembrances. And while it might answer the more straightforwardly political questions of what and whom to commemorate (although the answer could turn out to be "everything"), this approach fails to answer the aesthetic question of how to do so. The recent controversy over the Irish Famine Memorial [see graphic, left] unveiled at Boston's Downtown Crossing, for example, revolved not around the message of the memorial but rather its form. The memorial—a traditional figurative sculpture of three starving and three healthy figures—was roundly criticized for lacking imagination and for having been chosen without consulting the community. Here the problem may also have been one of funding. Many cities have adopted so-called "percent for art" programs requiring 1 percent of the cost of any construction project involving city funds to be spent on art. Boston lacks such a program. So the aesthetic vision behind the famine memorial, which seems to loom awkwardly between mawkish Soviet Realism and Frederic Remington–inspired schlock, ended up being that of a single wealthy individual—multimillionaire Thomas Flatley. The memorial was promptly proclaimed "an embarrassment," "a monument to kitsch," and an artistic "one-liner." One Irish cultural commentator complained in the Irish Times that the sculpture "shows not an ability to face our past, but a complete inability to imagine it."

Could it be that there is just something about our multicultural society that prevents traditional monuments from speaking persuasively to us? Even with comprehensive percent for art programs in place, many public art and commemorative efforts self-destruct under the weight of identity politics and real public discord. In Whose Art Is It? Jane Kramer provides a striking account of the debate surrounding a white artist's controversial bronze statues of three people from a particularly rough section in the South Bronx. Commissioned by New York City's Department of Cult ural Affairs as part of the city's percent for art program, the sculptor, John Ahearn, decided to install bronze casts of three neighborhood characters—a Hispanic man and his pit bull, a shirtless African-American man with his boom box and basketball, and an African-American girl on roller skates—whom he felt embodied the "South Bronx attitude" that he had come to admire after living in the neighborhood [see graphic, previous page]. These figures did not project the image of empowerment and social strength that some people had hoped they would—and some people saw them simply as blatantly negative stereotypes. A few well-placed, irate phone calls from two African-American city employees and a self-appointed neighborhood advocate were enough to create a community crisis. Ahearn ultimately chose to remove the sculptures.

In exploring the story of Ahearn's embattled sculptures, Kramer discovers a disturbing tendency in debates over public art for categories of representation to shrink under the demands of politically and culturally correct bureaucrats. The result is actually the opposite of multiculturalism: no one looks outside her own tradition and no one can speak for anybody else.

In this context, is simply throwing up a monument at the center of town still really an adequate way of connecting with our past? Or is there a post-monumental form of commemoration for these self-consciously postmodern times? Critics have argued that many memory sites actually discourage engagement with the past. As Robert Musil once famously observed, "There is nothing in the world as invisible as monuments . . . . Doubtless they have been erected to be seen—even to attract attention; yet at the same time something has impregnated them against attention. Like a drop of water on an oilskin, attention runs down them without stopping for a moment." More recently, James Reston, Jr., complained in the New York Times that the addition of ever more military monuments to the Washington Mall only diluted their potential message: "In about a half-hour's walk the visitor can contemplate the lessons of the Civil War, the Korean War, and Vietnam all at once. It will be the walking equivalent of changing channels on the television."

Anti-Monuments

Perhaps the best way to preserve the relevance of monuments is not to do away with monuments themselves but rather with the assumptions about memory that underlie them. That is, if it's impossible to dampen monuments' politically charged significance (assuming we'd even want to), maybe the way to defuse these controversies is to come to terms with the ever-reconstructed nature of the past. If we could begin to think of history as something other than the commemorative equivalent of the last Valhalla, perhaps we could then begin to reimagine the monumental landscape.

In an effort to do just that, sculptors and scholars alike have been exploring the artistic and thematic potential of counter-monuments, which challenge traditional monuments' illusions of permanence, often by negating their own form. For Albert Boime, author of The Unveiling of the National Icons, public monuments are not merely conservative or exclusionary, they are downright oppressive. In his highly polemical and sometimes stylistically muddled new book, Boime argues that most national icons like the Lincoln Memorial, the American flag, or Mount Rushmore possess an ersatz artlessness that belies the complexity of their actual meaning and represents the false promise that "all Americans can find themselves somewhere within [their] folds."

By contrast, he writes approvingly of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial [see photo, right] as an "anti-monument" because it flies in the face of both the aggrandizing aesthetics and the mytho-nationalist politics of other monuments (or in Boime-speak: "Lin's V-shaped wall is a 'countermonument,' opposing phallocentrism with its female 'gash' in Mother Earth"). The physical form of the Vietnam memorial invites participation and direct interaction; visitors who approach and touch the low wall of polished granite find themselves confronted with their own reflections and the names of the dead, caught between their own personal mourning and the collective grief of the other people pressing around them. Although the memorial was first and foremost an attempt at providing reconciliation for a conflict that had disrupted and divided American society, it also commemorates our own ambivalence about the Vietnam War, and maybe even about our commemoration of it. Boime also differentiates the Vietnam memorial from other commemorative projects because it was the result of grassroots participation and an open-jury competition, making it democratically inclusive and something of an organic expression of the "will of the people." Perhaps in part for this reason—though the monument had to endure initial controversy and withering criticism from the right—it has become the most visited site in Washington.

Saving Monuments

It may be that projects like Shimon Attie's on the corner of Ludlow and Rivington suggest the most promising new direction for the public monument debate. Before his "Between Dreams and History" installation in the Lower East Side, Attie had developed a project in a former East Berlin neighborhood, "The Writing on the Wall," which projected photographs taken in the Jewish district of Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s onto their present-day counterparts, so that the projected image of the historical site was overlaid on the actual site today. In doing so, Attie was able to peel apart, if only for a moment, the layers of Berlin's past, and expose the gulf that exists between what was lost and our present memory of it. Similarly, he says his project on the Lower East Side was an attempt to "tickle the imagination" with intimations of history that would stay with people long after the writing on the walls had disappeared. Attie's work in this way provides a compelling alternative to the mere memorializing demands of politicians and constituents.

Recognizing that sites of history are only meaningful to those who are already familiar with the sites' past, Attie's projections of ghostly images are intentionally momentary interventions that can provide viewers with a new visual memory and a new historical awareness. And just as Attie's laser beams and projected photographs caused passersby to gawk and stop in the middle of the street, so other recent interventions—restoration projects, physical removal, dedication ceremonies—have breathed new life into some commemorative sites and public spaces. In a society as conscious of its fault lines as ours is, it may at times seem easier for monuments to remain effectively invisible, blending into a landscape already saturated with lieux de memoires, rather than become notorious as symbols of cultural division. But if we run away from controversies over monuments and other representations of America's past in search of some promised land of historical consensus, might we be giving up on the ideal of a more democratic cultural literacy and pluralist social identity that was part of our founding ethos?

If we want to save monuments—and it seems we should—we need to reinvest them with the memory of their own origins; we need to make them visible again by accepting their subjectivity and their ultimate transitoriness, by revisiting and reconstructing their meanings in light of new civic lessons that we've only started to learn. And in building new monuments, we need to be willing to turn away from certain traditions, which are themselves "invented," and look for ways to reimagine the mission of monuments. Finally, we need to face the possibility that perhaps monuments themselves are not ultimately the point, but rather, as James Young, author of The Texture of Memory, suggests, that "the surest engagement with memory lies in its perpetual irresolution . . . [in] the never-to-be resolved debate over which kind of memory to preserve, how to do it, in whose name, and to what end." Then maybe we could accept the changing fate of monuments simply as part of the never-ending revisionism necessary to create a society we can all live with.

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