Artist Lecture Review 1- Erika Doss

Samantha Gault

ARTH 3539

Review of Artist Lecture: Erika Doss (Art History Lecture Series)

Erika Doss was introduced by one of her peers as a former professor of Art History at CU and a current professor and chair in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.  Doss’ lecture was entitled, “Cultural Vandalism and Public Memory: Anger, Citizenship, and Memorials in Contemporary America”, the focus of which was on contemporary memorials and affect, or the ways in which feeling can shape the way that we recognize and respond to these memorials. 

She began with an anecdote of the vandalism of a monument of 16th century Spanish conquistador Juan de Onate in the Southwestern United States.  Although New Mexican Hispanics originally recognized Onate as a heroic settler, Native Americans hold opposing views and characterize him as a barbarous thief and murderer.  In protest, they cut off the right foot of the statue to symbolize the truth behind the exploitation of their land and people.  They wanted to commemorate the grandeur and horror of this seemingly glorious soldier and to manifest the cultural destruction of an indigenous people.  Through cultural vandalism, these people could expose the truth in their history.  I personally thought that beginning the lecture with such a descriptive, emotional, and often-untold story allowed me to develop a deeper connection to the subject at hand.

Doss then began to discuss cultural obsessions with memorials and the conflicts that emerge from them.  She discussed permanent memorials, such as those dedicated to astronauts, the Salem Witch trials, World War 2, Civil Rights, and cancer survivors, and temporary memorials, like balloons, teddy bears, and flowers placed in areas after tragedy like September 11th and the Columbine massacre.  She stated that memorials are vastly divergent in subject and style, and that they hold affective conditions in their meaning.  She noted that our nation has an obsession with memory and with saving and commemorating our history and past through things like memorials.  Memorials represent issues in public culture, and the United States consistently demands the recognition and respect of these issues.  Doss stated that memorials are heated sites of cultural destruction.  I agree with this statement.  I believe that there is a high level of emotion attached to issues of both a contemporary and historical nature in this country, and through memorials we have found a way to allow people to construct personal responses to these issues.  In order to fully understand and take in the complexities of our past, memorials serve as a method for experience.

Current memorials have become a dense, visceral experience and are places where we can experience history for what it was and what it has become.  Through these interactions with memorials, affect and feeling is developed toward not only the site itself, but also what it represents.  Many emotions are called upon in viewing memorials.  Personally, I am a graduate of Columbine High School.  After the tragedy in 1999, a new library was constructed, serving as both a place of learning and also a commemoration of the massacre. A large plaque sits in the center of the library engraved with the names of those killed.  It is recognition of the past, located in an area of future development.  It represents a new way of dealing with a multitude of feelings associated with being apart of the Columbine community.

Memorials serve as a place for remembrance, reflection, and redemption.  Doss noted that the heightened emotional affect of the public media often perpetuates these dimensions and conditions and offers a way for us to understand these feelings.  Nationally, she said, anger is commended for injustice and confusion, and used an example of the War on Terror, where American anger has trumped legal recourse.  Emotions like anger are key to the dynamics of this memorial mania, and they inevitably shape our cultural productions.  Doss continued on to explain cultural vandalism as a form of discourse that allows us to expose flaws, tell truths, and revise history.  She gave the example of the protest of Christopher Columbus and the debate over whether he was an explorer or an exploiter.  She showed us pictures of the vandalizing of the Columbus memorial in Denver, where bloody doll parts were strewn about the monument.  She stated that because monuments have a sense of mortality in them, damage and destruction are integral to their state of being.  The toppling of the statues of Lenin, Stalin, and Hussein reflect cultural vandalism in moments of significant political and social upheaval.  They represent revision and the demand of new definitions of a culture, thoroughly representing the notion that memorials are a target and source of public anger.

Erika Doss concluded her lecture by stating that despite the associated burden, the historical memory of monuments cannot be denied.  She hopes for a counter-commemorative culture, full of critical viewpoints and revisions of our various histories.  She states that there are a multitude of possibilities in the affective influence of memorials.  For example, the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial disrupts the typical feelings of animosity amongst commemorative monuments.  It radiates aspirations of civil rights and universal justice, and the people who spend time there often leave thoughtful and emotionally productive.  I agree with Doss’s conclusion.  Anger does not have to be the only emotion attached to memorials.  I believe that the recognition and acceptance of perhaps a shameful past is the first step in constructing appropriate emotions and responses to it, and memorials aid us in doing so.

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