Monuments: Understanding the Function of Commemoration as Confrontation

In what follows I will argue that cities should not remove confederate monuments, as compliance with the imperative of progress is philosophically unbecoming when that imperative demands the public sacrifice of criticism in the name of reconciliation.

Monuments are erected in order to commemorate historic origins. The term commemoration is often associated with celebration, remembrance and honor. Understandably, monuments that were erected to celebrate confederate accomplishments are now embedded with controversy. These structures that occupy public space confront the viewer with something more complicated than historic origins, more complicated than the celebration of the contribution of individuals to the community that exists today. These structures painfully remind the viewer of a war that was fought to maintain slavery at the penalty of unsurmountable African-American suffering. However, such structures that were erected and the matters that are explicitly remembered by their presence, offer a historical context of the spaces we occupy. Removing such structures may obscure important information about our past.

The idea of the public is already so controversial that as it stands, works of public art demand justification in several facets of analyses: public space, public ownership, public representation, public interest, and public sphere (Hein). Thus, consensus of what type of public art is appropriate, would require a consensus on the object’s social purpose enshrined by the object’s origin history and location. An argument that is mentioned by Michael Kelly is that public art can serve only the ideological purpose of propagating a false sense of consensus, within that statement I would like to place emphasis on false as reaching a consensus between individuals and groups that coexist within communities on public art would be impossible to achieve — a challenge that has confused the matter of confederate monuments.

In James Young’s assessment of the counter-monument movement, which began as a manner in which the public is faced with the Holocaust — a manner in which the public shares the burden of remembering the heinous acts that marked the nation’s past. The counter-monument forces the viewer to remember. This type of commemoration is a far cry from a celebration. This evolution of the purpose of a monument seems to be an appropriate course of action in the matter of confederate statues. Young writes, “Traditionally, state sponsored memory of a national past aims to affirm the righteousness of a nation’s birth, even its divine election.” He further claims that monuments tend to naturalize the values, ideals, and laws of the land itself — “to do otherwise would be to undermine the very foundations of national legitimacy, of the state’s seemingly natural right to exist.”

Thus the United States is faced with a dilemma, and the following questions posed by Young, in the context of Germany’s monument debate, can be applied to the situation in the United States:

How does a state incorporate its crimes against others into its national memorial landscape?

How does a state recite, much less commemorate, the litany of its misdeeds, making them part of its reason for being?

For young German artists and sculptors, the possibility of memory, and the obligation to remember, cannot simply be reduced to a public monument. This sentiment gave rise to the counter-monument, which has six specific aims: not to console but to provoke; not to remain fixed but to change; not to be everlasting but to disappear; not to be ignored by its passersby but to demand interaction; not to remain pristine but to invite its own violation and desecration; not to accept graciously the burden of memory but to throw it back at the town’s feet. In short, the counter-monument emphasizes and challenges the limitations of conventional monuments and memorials, a strategy that could potentially be effective in confronting the ugly facets of our historic origins.

Rather than arguing for the creation of counter-monuments in the United States, I want to focus on a different approach: critical contextualization. History can not and should not be erased. Though the public may not want to be reminded of the atrocities of our ancestors, it remains imperative that they are understood — much can be done to aid that process that does not include the removal of confederate monuments. For example, the addition of plaques, or other methods of providing context right by the monument can change the value that it holds. Further, if the argument upon which confederate monuments are removed (or names are changed, etc.) embodies the truth of our history that includes slavery and racism, and that symbolic remembrance and confrontation of these values is problematic in the public sphere, a similar argument can be made in the context of monuments depicting men who abused the women in their lives. While this deals with sexism, rather than racism, it is a form of discrimination, and rather than the elimination of monuments, contextualization of the truth about the individual depicted may help shed light on the horrors they took part in during their times. Being confronted with the past allows for a greater understanding of the ways in which we must continue to move forward.

Writer & Researcher

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