Monuments in Crisis: How Art Historians Can Help

dsc_6661.jpgThis afternoon, Evie Terrono and I co-presented a paper at the College Art Association’s annual meeting titled “Monuments in Crisis: Debates on the Confederate Landscape.” Focusing on the recent controversy regarding the future of Confederate monuments, we debated the monuments’ meaning and possible next steps for communities interested in recontextualizing or removing them. While I argued the iconoclast’s perspective, Evie counseled caution, noting the monuments’ value as works of art and as multivalent objections symbolizing the nation’s checkered past.

Our paper was part of Public Art Dialogue‘s session, “Teachable Monuments: Using Public Art to Spark Dialogue and Address Controversies, ” part of PAD’s larger Teachable Monuments initiative. With the idea of the “teachable” in mind, we decided to end our paper with a series of suggestions for art historians to intervene in community conversations surrounding the future of contested monuments. The following is based on the concluding section of our paper.

We are both in agreement that ongoing debates about the fate of the monumental landscape provide unique opportunities for art historians to intervene. Whether the ultimate goal is to remove problematic monuments from view or to preserve them in some way, there are several steps that you, the civically-minded art historian, can take right now to make your voice heard:Butts County Confederate Monument

  1. Document your local monuments: Record the monuments in the town where you live, whether they are Confederate monuments or otherwise, in order to preserve the record for the future. Photograph monuments from all angles, including details, inscriptions, and long views, and the surrounding landscape. Document vandalism, damage, or if the monuments are removed, the process of their removal. Research your local monuments in libraries or archives, and learn about their history. The memorial landscape may be changing, and we may not all be in agreement about how or whether to slow that process. But if we can document the landscape the way it appears now, at least we will be able to pass down that photographic record to future researchers.
  2. Get involved in discussions in your community: If a monument near you is challenged, make your voice heard as your community debates its fate. Go to town hall meetings, and share your expertise as art historians. If there are protests, go to them and talk to the protestors who show up. Collect their literature and ask to photograph their signs. Current civic engagement is part of a monument’s afterlife – ephemeral action around a seemingly permanent object – and all of it inscribes new meaning onto the work of art. If a protest is happening in your community, your expertise as a researcher and scholar is crucial both for your community’s decision-making process and for the future historical record.
  3. Get the word out: You have a voice – use it. If you don’t have a Twitter account yet, make one. Start a blog. Make a professional website listing your qualifications. Apply to be listed as an expert on public art in databases such as Expert Finder or SheSource. Talk to the media. Write op-eds, open letters, and petitions. Give public presentations to general audiences, not just at academic conferences. Contribute to crowdsourced syllabi gathering information on the history of public monuments. As an art historian or public scholar, your opinion is valuable to the public discourse.

At a time when government funding for the humanities is perpetually in jeopardy, and the future of the tenure track in academia is uncertain, the Confederate monument crisis is a clear illustration of why our discipline is culturally vital and necessary. It is important that we all take this opportunity to define ourselves as public scholars and to make our skills and knowledge available to our communities as they grapple with the future of problematic monuments.

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