Erika Doss Lecture Review

Marlena Chanel Host

Erika Doss’ lecture on “Cultural Vandalism and Public Memory,” turned out to be very intriguing. Though its long title was suggestive of several broad ideas, Doss was able to draw these together effectively into a very insightful and clear lecture. Her discussion was centered on a socially contested piece of public art, Reynaldo Rivera’s ‘Juan de Onate’ sculpture. Though she used this sculpture and the acts of vandalism and dispute surrounding it as the focal point of her argument, her lecture was very wide reaching and encompassed several examples and ideas concerning the heated responses to art as a reflection of anger in contemporary American society.

Doss began by describing the issue of the ‘Juan de Onate’ sculpture in detail. Angered Native Americans who were upset that such a sculpture had been set up honoring a mass murderer and brutal conqueror had cut off the sculptures right foot. While several members of the community sided with the Native American vandals, others felt the act was unjust and thought Juan de Onate deserved this sculpture. In their eyes his historical profile was that of a respected founder of Christianity and the Camino Royal trade route. Doss used this social tension to illustrate the way that public art often relies upon public memory for support in conveying meaning. In the case of Juan de Onate, the public memory of this historical figure was split two ways, thus the statue took on two very different imaginings, one of honor and one of shame or disgust.

Moving on from the Onate example Doss began with her overarching claim, that we are living in the “age of memorials,” both permanent and temporary displays in the public sphere. The heavy demand for such memorials and the anxiety over who and what should receive this public reverence is what Doss refers to as “memorial mania.”  She explains that in the contemporary world people want to know about history through experience. This need for experiences, such as standing at the large pools at Ground Zero, or walking along the Holocaust memorial, are intrinsically tied to history, memory, and most of all identity. Because individuals conceive of certain monuments as a projection of their own identity, site where memorials exist become in many cases heated zones of controversy.   No memorial will ever be able to project every historical memory of the individuals who look at them; no memorial can ever be fully embraced by everyone.

Doss’s lecture then turned to the source of such heated contentions over these public images, which for example would cause a person enough anger to chop off the foot of a sculpture. Doss attributed this rage to her perception that American culture is “contextualized by anger and heightened feelings.”  Though at first her claim that rage is part of popular culture in America, seemed pretty heavy handed, Doss defended her point of view well.  She points out that anger is commended by our society as the appropriate response to national injustice. As a clear example Doss provided that President Bush’s first response to the tragedy of 9/11 was anger and war, rather than a host of other emotions, sadness, or fear.  Anger in many cases trumps all other emotions and plans of action, such as legal action of ethical moral. In the case of the Onate sculpture, anger was used to protest the admiring of a killer, with a hope that anger could reconfigure the historical narrative being presented as truth. Doss gave several examples of memorials that had induced angry and often times violent responses, most always in attempts to revise the perception of history these images portray. One good example is the multitudes of Columbus sculptures which have been attacked by people who see Columbus not as Americas founder but as a destroyer, much like the case of Onate.

The lecture concluded with a return to the more specific event of the Onate sculpture, and how the conflict was ‘resolved.’ The memorial was changed providing two stories to be portrayed, that of the journey, commemorating Juan de Onate, and a very different looking earthwork representing the Native Americans. Though the memorial ended up being changed to include the Native perspective, and decentralized Onate, Doss reminds us that this does not mean that the conflicting ideas have truly been resolved. In many ways the dissecting paths further illustrate the separateness and un-conciliatory nature of historical memories, which cannot ultimately be quelled.  In her mind it is the drama, anger, and emotive displays surrounding our public memorials that are more important then the works themselves. The response/resistance to such artistic works acknowledges the fluidity of culture and historical conceptions, proving that Americans want to introduce new narratives and provide alternative future perspectives.

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