Birmingham: Denying Meaning

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So far, I’ve had an action-packed fall semester. I’ve recently relocated to Washington, DC to take up my post as the Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan Fellow awarded through the James Smithson Fellowship Program, based at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I’ll be spending the year working on my book, Monumental Crisis, and planning a new public-facing arm of my project (more on that to come!). For now, I’m spending weekdays in DC and weekends at home in New Jersey with my family, researching and writing and keeping up with all of the latest developments in the monument field.

beetham SECAC 2018 paperThis past week, I traveled to Birmingham, Alabama for the annual meeting of the Southeastern College Art Conference, one of my favorite events to attend each year. At the invitation of Naomi Slipp, I filled in as a co-chair for her double session, “‘Little of Artistic Merit?’ The Art of the American South.” In my paper for the session, “Confederate Monuments: Southern Art or Southern Heritage?,” I debated whether Confederate monuments, most of which were manufactured outside the South, should be included in discussions of Southern art at all. I was pleased with how the session turned out, and received a lot of useful feedback for my paper. I’m looking forward to incorporating these ideas into my writing.

20181022_155055Birmingham also yielded a new subject of study for my book. On the walk from my hotel to the convention center, I passed Linn Park, home to the city’s Confederate monument. Erected in 1905, the monument is a tall granite obelisk, a common type for post-Civil War memorials. But in 2017, then-mayor William Bell ordered a black plywood wall built around the base of the obelisk, blocking the inscription honoring the Confederacy from view. Photographs of the uncovered obelisk are available online, but a visitor to the site today is left with a stark barrier obscuring the monument’s meaning. The painted plywood is matte black, absorbing all light – so different from the effect of the reflective black granite often employed in memorial designs today. Standing at approximately twelve feet high, the wall stymies any attempt to see over it to access the inscription. The effect in person is startling, disrupting the urban fabric and calling attention to its bleak nothingness.

confederate jacketOf all the interventions I have seen directed at Confederate monuments, this is one of the most interesting. The monument is in legal limbo – the city of Birmingham is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the state over whether the intervention violates a new state law prohibiting the alteration of monuments – and it remains to be seen whether the state will force the city to remove the wall. But in the meantime, the intervention poses interesting questions about a monument’s ability to convey meaning. The monument’s form – an obelisk – is an ancient one, a geometric mass with flat planes designed to display a carved message. The form itself carries associations dating back to ancient Egypt, but in an American context, the obelisk has been used for all manner of political, military, and funereal memorials. The shape is readily identified, but without the additional context provided by the inscription, it is a shape only. In shrouding the monument’s base, the city of Birmingham has prevented the monument from delivering its message. This removal of meaning reminds me of regulations in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, in which former Confederate soldiers were prohibited from wearing their old uniforms unless all buttons and insignia were removed. Without insignia connecting it with the Confederacy, a gray jacket is just a gray jacket. And without access to the inscription, the Birmingham obelisk is simply a gray shaft of stone, piercing the sky above a wall of nothingness.

And yet, these blank objects tug at our minds. We recognize a military jacket, and we know that the obelisk has an inscription that is just out of reach. Birmingham’s intervention forces us to engage with the monument and to make note of the wall’s obscuring power. Like the empty bases of monuments that have been hauled away in recent months, the wall calls attention to the very thing it conceals. Some opponents of the removal of monuments have argued that these objects serve as reminders of dark chapters in America’s past, and thus should be kept in place as teaching tools. Supporters of removal have countered that their power to elevate is too strong to leave them in place. Birmingham’s solution seems to thread both arguments: this intervention in the memorial landscape disrupts the Confederate narrative and forces us to confront its presence in civic life.

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