Birmingham: Denying Meaning


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.

Silent Sam is down. How will communities respond?

domby silent sam

Silent Sam during a student protest in March 2018 (Photo credit: Adam Domby)

A little over a year ago, after activists in Durham, North Carolina tore down the local Confederate monument in an act of civil disobedience, I predicted that more monuments would follow. It took a little longer than I expected, but last night, students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill toppled Silent Sam, the 1913 Confederate soldier monument that has long been a locus for controversy. At least as early as the 1960s, the statue was debated as a symbol of racism and white supremacy, and acts of vandalism and calls for removal have dogged the statue (For a complete timeline of events, click here).

But in the three years since the June 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina reignited the debate over the future of Confederate monuments, the controversy surrounding Silent Sam has intensified. In July 2015, then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill prohibiting communities from removing “objects of remembrance” commemorating “an event, person or military service that is part of North Carolina’s history” without permission from the General Assembly. Since then, student groups have increased pressure on the university to find a way to remove Silent Sam. The statue has also been defaced several times, notably in May 2018 when Maya Little painted the monument with a mixture of red paint and her own blood. It was in support of Maya Little that last night’s “Until They All Fall” rally was held.

Early in the evening, activists obscured Silent Sam with banners, and under the cover of these banners, they tied ropes around the statue and brought it down. It will now be up to the university and the North Carolina legislature to assess the extent of the statue’s damage and to decide what to do next.

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have published excellent pieces covering last night’s events in Chapel Hill. The Post in particular spoke at length with Dr. Adam Domby, who as a graduate student in 2009 uncovered a shockingly racist speech given by Julian Carr at Silent Sam’s 1913 dedication, and the article is worth reading in full. But I’d like to call attention to remarks by Dr. Karen Cox, who has been an outspoken critic of the continued presence of Confederate monuments in public space:

“People seem to be at their wit’s end,” said Karen Cox, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.”

“When people feel they’re not being heard, when people don’t have a place at the table, then this is the result,” she said.

By passing laws to control the handling of Confederate monuments at the state level, states like North Carolina have closed nearly all avenues for resolving the current debate through compromise. It should be up to local communities to decide how to maintain their public spaces and what to do with the monuments in their care. Instead, draconian laws prevent civil discourse, and extralegal action in the dead of night is the result.

It is time for these state “preservation” laws to be overturned so that communities can make their own decisions about their monuments through discussion and compromise. At this point, it is unlikely that amendment through new text or additional statuary will be enough to calm current unrest. But it is still possible to find a home for these statues away from public life, in which they can be warehoused and contextualized as the material culture of a divisive era. Those who wish to preserve the statues for their historical significance or artistic merit would do well to resist state laws that restrict local action and strangle debate: the alternative is a polarized landscape in which the events of Durham and Chapel Hill will likely continue to occur.

New Essay: #ConfederateMonuments and the Inevitable Forces of Change

figure 01 Laurel Hill Civil War monument

Civil War Monument, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia (Photo by the author)

The latest issue of Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art is out, with a new contribution from me! A few months ago, I was asked to submit a short essay for this issue’s Bully Pulpit on Confederate monuments. The assignment was not to rehash the “keep them up”/”take them down” debate that has been ongoing for at least the last three years, but to find a fresh angle to think about what the current debate tells us about the materiality of monuments, the state of American memory, or any other aspect of monuments, memory, or history.

I was honored to be included along with three senior scholars whose work I have long respected and referenced. Dell Upton’s essay asks us to take a critical look at the ways in which unequivocally heroic monuments to white Americans have prevented us from having nuanced conversations about America’s fraught history. Renée Ater discusses the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama as a counter-monument that upends the Lost Cause narrative as presented in Confederate monuments. And finally, Kirsten Pai Buick exposes the role monuments play in papering over the violence of slavery, setting traditional American monuments in opposition to the more nuanced art of African-American women, including Mary Edmonia Lewis, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Augusta Savage, and Nona Faustine.

Alongside the work of these fabulous scholars, I argue that the current debate over the future of Confederate monuments fails to consider the long history of monumental alteration and destruction. Beginning with the mundane and unremarkable relocation of a Union Civil War monument from Mount Moriah Cemetery to Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, I write:

This is not an abnormal event in the life cycle of public monuments, which exist outdoors in public space and are subject to the forces of public opinion, historical revisionism, convenience, and weather. Contrary to popular perception, monuments are not immutable or unchanging edifices; instead, there can be adjustments and adaptations according to the circumstances of their environments.

For the rest of my essay, click here. To read the whole Bully Pulpit, which is full of provocative new ideas, click here.

Frederic Remington: Bronze is forever?

remington bronco buster

Frederic Remington, The Broncho Buster, 1895, this cast 1918 (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It’s been an interesting summer so far. For the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a bit of freelance writing, working on a group of catalogue entries on important American sculptures for a major new show on American art. The project has been stimulating: it’s a bit of a break from ruminating over monumental destruction, and I’ve had the chance to research a number of works that were familiar to me, but which I had never taken the opportunity to think deeply about.

One of those is Frederic Remington’s Broncho Buster. Remington’s art has never particularly appealed to me: I find the machismo more than a little off-putting, and the politics inherent in his work are quite upsetting as well. Remington was active as an artist at a particular moment in American history when the conquest of the West was drawing to a close and the imperialist era, signaled by the Spanish-American War, was just dawning, and his cowboys and Indians are completely tied up in that narrative. There’s a reason that Remington was drawn to the activities of the Rough Riders in Cuba during the War of 1898, and there’s a reason that Teddy Roosevelt was so fond of his work. The two men really suited each other.

That said, the story of how Remington became a sculptor is compelling. In late 1894, the sculptor Frederic W. Ruckstull was staying with Remington’s neighbor, Augustus Thomas. At the time, Ruckstull was working on an equestrian statue honoring Major General John F. Hartranft, and Remington often went to watch him at work. One day, Augustus Thomas observed how Remington was able to imagine the same figure from multiple viewpoints on paper, mentally turning the subject one way or another to suit his needs, and pointed out that with skill like this, Remington had the mind of a sculptor. Remington agreed, and with the encouragement of Ruckstull and Thomas, he began working in clay and finished The Broncho Buster shortly afterward. As a first effort, it is extraordinary, with dynamic action and virtuoso use of space. The sculpture went on to be one of the most popular in turn-of-the-century America, with hundreds of authorized and unauthorized casts.


James Edward Kelly, Defenders of New Haven (detail), New Haven, CT, 1910: This monument’s condition shows that bronze definitely does NOT endure forever!

While working on the sculpture, Remington made a striking statement in a letter to his friend, the novelist Owen Wister:

My water colors will fade—but I am to endure in bronze—even rust does not touch. I am modeling —I find I do well—I am doing a cowboy on a bucking broncho and I am going to rattle down through all the ages, unless some Anarchist invades the old mansion and knocks it off the shelf.

In other words, Remington was drawn to work in sculpture because he felt the medium made his work immortal. Of course, as a researcher with a keen interest in the destruction of sculpture, this jumped out at me. The whole premise of my book project is to undermine popular perception of monumental sculpture as permanent, unchangeable and unchanging. Bronze and stone sculptures change all the time, especially when they are outdoors. The materials weather over time and are subject to deliberate and accidental damage. Sometimes they are removed or relocated, either for political or practical reasons. For all of these reasons, sculpture is not the enduring substance of fame through the ages that Remington imagined in his letter.


Martin Milmore, Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument (detail), Boston Common, Boston, MA, dedicated 1877: Remington’s anarchists?

But it’s also interesting that Remington imagined unnamed “Anarchists” as the possible downfall of his plan for immortality. As we’ve seen with Confederate monuments in recent months, the extralegal activities of actors opposed to a monument’s message can indeed cause lasting damage. The current move to replace or remove Confederate monuments has been ignited for multiple reasons, but chief among them is certainly the actions of individuals who no longer wish to allow the monuments to exist in their communities, and will ensure that their wishes are carried out by force if necessary. Remington’s politics certainly would not be aligned with today’s American Left, and if his cowboy sculptures had ever become monuments, they might be on the chopping block today.

I’m going to think about Remington in relation to my book project a bit more, and some of these thoughts might be making their way into the text somewhere. In all, this week has reminded me that sometimes it’s useful to step away from one’s main project in order to work in other directions for a little while. One never knows what might come from pursuing another path.

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.