Yesterday was “one of those days” in the life of a professor/parent/public historian: I took a rare Saturday trip down to Philadelphia to do some reconnaissance for a paper assignment for my students at the Penn Museum, and then headed across town to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for a performance of Sonya Clark’s Unraveling, in which participants work together to unmake a Confederate flag. Schedules get hectic at this point in the semester as obligations (and stacks of grading!) pile up. But in this case, these back-to-back events created some unexpected and welcome resonances.
This fall, I’m teaching two sections of the first half of the art history survey, covering mostly Western art (with some additions) from prehistoric times to the Middle Ages. As a scholar currently steeped in issues of iconoclasm in art, I’ve been giving my students lots of time to ponder these issues in relation to the cultures we’ve been covering: ISIS-led destruction and looting of Middle Eastern antiquities; cultural theft and repatriation issues surrounding Egyptian and Greek treasures; the ancient Roman practice of damnatio memoriae; and the iconoclastic controversies of the Byzantine Empire. My students are quick to draw connections between these examples and the current furor surrounding Confederate monuments, and so far we’ve had a fruitful ongoing conversation about the reasons art can provoke violent reactions, the methods by which objects are destroyed, and the various ways in which these acts can be interpreted.
And so, it was was with great interest that I happened upon a Roman object with clear evidence of iconoclasm in the Penn Museum:
This is the Puteoli marble block, taken from a triumphal arch dedicated to the emperor Trajan in the ancient city of Puteoli. The face that would have been visible on the arch is a relief panel depicting members of Trajan’s Praetorian Guard. But on the other side is an inscription that was deliberately obliterated: this marble block was once part of a monument praising the (hated) emperor Domitian for his role in constructing a new road. When Domitian was assassinated in 96 CE due to his tyrannical ways, the Roman Senate decided to invoke the process of damnatio memoriae, officially damning his memory and stipulating that all art created in his honor should be destroyed or repurposed. In constructing a new monument to Trajan, the artists reused Domitian’s dishonored plaque: why waste a perfectly good block of marble? But as we can see, even the destruction of art leaves traces, and while it is possible to rebuild and move on after a dark period in history, the scars remain.
Leaving the Penn Museum, I traveled over to PAFA to contemplate a different set of scars: those left on the American psyche from the legacy of slavery and the Civil War. In her performance piece Unraveling, Sonya Clark invites members of the audience to join her one by one in picking apart the warp and weft of a Confederate flag (Read more about the performance — and listen to a podcast with the artist — here). The piece is full of deep reverberations: the process of unraveling the tightly woven (cotton!) threads is tedious and slow, and each thread pulled is only a tiny fraction of the enormous work that must be done. In the same vein, the wounds caused by slavery run deep in every facet of American society, and the lie of Lost Cause mythology continues to stand in the way of healing. Picking apart the legacy of this ideology is slow going, and with each step forward comes the constant risk of regression. But we must fight on.
When I heard that this performance was taking place at my school, I looked forward to participating with a sense of the anger that I always feel when confronting the legacy of the Confederacy and slavery (particularly strong in these troubled times). I imagined dismantling the flag as my own act of deliberate iconoclasm, attacking a symbol that has caused so much harm. But in practice, I found the performance much more healing and peaceful than I had expected. Waiting on line for over an hour for my turn with the flag, I had a sense of the unraveling as a community effort to pull down barriers and restore peace. When my turn came, I found comfort in Clark’s warm and reassuring presence as she pointed out some tiny threads along one of the flag’s white stripes for me to pull. I have a feeling I will take that memory with me as I continue to play my part in dissolving the Confederate legacy. Not all revolutions are fought in the streets with weapons and shouting. They can also happen between individuals in a quiet gallery on a Saturday afternoon.
And on a personal note: Yesterday was my first time bringing my infant daughter out to an art museum, and I was proud that the institution where I work every week was one of her first. Her presence yesterday was a reminder that we do this work of unraveling the poisonous elements of our nation’s past in order to give her generation the best possible start.