Recontextualizing Monuments and the Treachery of Images

A few weeks ago, I taught a lecture on surrealism to my Introduction to Art History students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Of course, one of the works we discussed was René Magritte’s famous provocation, The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) of 1929. You know the one: a picture-perfect illustration of a pipe with words in French that translate to “This is not a pipe” written beneath it. In case you need a refresher on the meaning of the original painting, here’s a great summary video by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker of Smarthistory:

As Harris and Zucker explain, this painting can be interpreted in several different ways. First, of course, there’s the obvious: Magritte is correct that this is not a pipe, because it is a painting of a pipe, making it a representation and not the real thing. Up until the early twentieth century, Western artists had been concerned mainly with illusionistic representations of the natural world, and with this painting, Magritte upends centuries of tradition. One might even see this painting as an attack on the very notion of language itself, as the word “pipe” is not an actual pipe any more than Magritte’s painting is: both are symbols that stand in for the real thing.

But there’s another way of looking at this painting that I think might be telling for some of our current discussions surrounding monuments today. Magritte gives us a perfect painting of a pipe, and a text that says it is not a pipe: which do you believe? Which message is stronger? Do you respond more to the tangible image, or the text? What does this tell us about words and images today?

When I look at this painting, I am powerfully reminded of the notion of recontextualizing problematic monuments by adding new plaques or inscriptions to place them alongside the darker aspects of their historic background. This has been suggested in some circles as an alternative to removing the monuments, as a way of preserving the built environment while providing necessary information about the past. I’ve long felt that this was not a workable strategy, and I think Magritte tells us exactly why. In other words:

Ceci n'est pas un héros

Which is more powerful, the image or the text? Do you believe the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee set on a towering pedestal, one of the enduring symbols of heroism and power in Western art, or do you believe the text that tells you he is not worth celebrating? Is there any text or any plaque that could possibly counteract the visual impact of a monument? Or will the text always fade into the background?

To my mind, there’s no way to insert text alongside a monument that would counteract the power of the visual symbol, unless that text is written on a billboard or superimposed on the monument in some way. The equestrian statue and the triumphal column are too ingrained in our collective cultural heritage to allow for disruption in text. If we are going to seek just representation in our public spaces, we will have to find another way.

Guest Post on Confederate Monuments: Why Is This Happening Now?

DSC_6666A few weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a historian roundtable by the On Monument Avenue blog, a project sponsored by the American Civil War Museum that explores the messy historical context of Richmond’s storied Monument Avenue. Monument Avenue, a City Beautiful-inspired boulevard of Confederate luminaries, is currently at the center of debates over whether to remove, recontextualize, or preserve Confederate monuments. The ACWM assembled a group of four historians and tasked us with answering the question Why now? Why are we only just now acting to revise the Confederate landscape?

Or, as the introduction to the roundtable put it:

As we finish tracing the histories that emanated from 1890, we would like to more directly address the histories that have led to this particular moment that we reconsidering Confederate monuments in Richmond and beyond. In short, why is this happening now? The 2015 Charleston murders are an obvious starting point. But we would like to explore several political and social contexts that may reveal that this much more than a response to a single horrific act, but one that represents deeper structural change in American society, in how we see ourselves and our collective past.

The other three entries are by Modupe Labode, Julian Maxwell Hayter, and W. Fitzhugh Brundage, and I highly recommend reading all three of them – I definitely learned a lot! My entry, “Undercurrents of Opposition and the Catalyst for Change,” explores how the Black Lives Matter movement and the Civil War sesquicentennial created an environment of opposition into which the Charleston shooting exploded as a spark for action. An excerpt:

The Black Lives Matter movement was founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in 2013, in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. It began as a hashtag on social media, but quickly became a powerful organizing tool for local communities mobilizing to protest police shootings of unarmed Black people. In the summer of 2014, national attention focused on protests in the city of Ferguson, Missouri after Mike Brown was shot by a police officer. Mass protests broke out again in Baltimore, Maryland in April 2015, less than two months before the Charleston shooting, after Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained in the back of a police transport van. When Dylann Roof murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston in an act of explicit white supremacist violence, he galvanized a movement that was ready to mobilize for change.

Click here to read the whole post.

New Beginnings, New Adventures


The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, VA, as it appeared on April 20, 2018

Another academic year is winding down, and as always, I find myself looking backward and forward. This past June, I welcomed my baby daughter into the world, and at first the plan was to keep to a light professional load this year to give myself time to adjust to the reality of being a parent. But then the events in Charlottesville, Virginia happened, and suddenly I found myself with just about as much work as I could handle.

First came the interviews: with the Washington Post, Mic, U.S. News and World Report, The Art Newspaper, and several other outlets. Then I began a series of public talks. This past fall, I traveled to Newark, Delaware to speak at the University of Delaware, to Columbus, Ohio for the Southeastern College Art Conference, and to Washington, DC to visit American University. My travels in the spring included the College Art Association in Los Angeles, the Midwest Art History Society in Indianapolis, and a special symposium on the long history of iconoclasm in art at the University of Virginia. That last event brought me to Charlottesville, where I visited the sites that figured so prominently in the events of last August (special thanks to Jalane Schmidt for an informative and candid tour!).


PAFA Students in “American Sculpture” discuss plaster models of sculptures by Hiram Powers with Smithsonian curator Karen Lemmey

While keeping up with my work on monuments, I also had a full year of teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In the fall, I taught two sections of the first half of the survey (Prehistoric to Medieval), along with my “American Art to 1945” class. In the spring, I had two sections of the second half of the survey (Renaissance to Modern). But I also had a chance to fulfill a dream, teaching my first-ever class on the history of American sculpture! The scale of the class was intimate, with only eight students (most of whom were practicing sculptors), which meant plenty of opportunities for in-depth discussion and field trips to see sculpture in the round. Some of the highlights included a walking tour of Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia and a lovely afternoon with Curator of American Sculpture Karen Lemmey at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). I learned a lot while prepping the lectures, and my students’ enthusiasm made Wednesday afternoons one of the highlights of my week. Definitely a semester to remember!

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia

But even as I reflect back fondly on the past year of teaching, I also look forward to putting away my lesson planning and purple grading pen for the next fifteen months, because I will be going on leave! I am thrilled to announce that I have been awarded the Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan Fellowship through the James Smithson Fellowship Program at the Smithsonian Institution for the 2018-2019 academic year. I’ll spend the year working on my book project, Monumental Crisis: Accident, Vandalism, and the Civil War Citizen Soldier and learning all about public policy so that I can develop solutions for communities grappling with their problematic monuments. I’ll be in residence at SAAM, and I’m looking forward to returning to a cubicle in the Fellows’ Office. My plan is to split my time between DC and New Jersey so that I can be with my family on weekends, and I’m working on a bucket list of monuments, cultural institutions, and other sites to visit while I’m in DC – hoping to make the most of every day that I’m down there!

Indianapolis Soldiers and Sailors Monument, April 2018

This brings me to one final point: lately, I’ve been thinking that I’d like to take my work on monuments in a bit more of an entrepreneurial direction. There’s a lot of work to be done to document the monumental landscape as it currently stands and to negotiate what to do with statues that no longer align with community values. I’d like to do more to help: giving public talks, writing for the mass market, and designing workshops to think through monumental issues. I’m not sure how all of this will look just yet, but I’m hoping that this fellowship year will help me to develop a clear strategy for putting some of these ideas into practice. To that end, watch this space for big changes. Over the next few months, I’m hoping to increase the frequency of my posts on this blog and to overhaul the entire site to foreground some of my strategies for public outreach. I hope you’ll come along on this journey with me, and as always, I welcome all suggestions and leads! I look forward to diving into my research full-time and rethinking my place in the current monument debates.