Scholar Lecture Review

Contemporary Art

Visiting Scholar Lecture

 Erika Doss: “Cultural Vandalism and Public Memory:

Anger, Citizenship, and Memorials in Contemporary America

 Erika Doss is currently a professor at the University of Notre Dame. She has a great expanse of publications and even worked in the Department of Art and Art History here at the University of Colorado. Erika Doss returned to the CU campus, offering her insight on memorials in the United States what these monuments mean to different groups of citizens, living in this country, and how vandalism becomes a discourse on our feelings towards these sites. What she had to say regarding this topic was very interesting and I consider valuable to my current understanding of contemporary American society.

Doss began her lecture with a story. In 1994, the foot of a statue, made to mirror the early Spanish explorer, Juan de Onate, was cut off and hidden. This took place in Espanola, New Mexico and stirred up a lot of controversy in this little town.  According to Doss, this is what she calls cultural vandalism, because this incident was experienced differently between two groups of locals, the people of Spanish descendants and those of the native peoples of the area. Hispanics were angered by this act of vandalism because in their eyes Onate was a heroic conqueror and founder of their city, but to the native Pueblo Indians knew him only as a cruel man and ruthless murderer of their people. Both sides of this debate were pleading the historical ignorance of the other. Why the foot of the statue? During Onate’s rule over the native Indians, he would punish them by cutting off their feet. Therefore, whoever committed the act of vandalism was using a pun to lash out, which is something that in my mind is kind of admirable and worth commenting on. This example is one that Doss deems important because it’s a story of iconoclasm, a claim to national origin, and anger.

After the story of Onate’s memorial, she gave many other examples of controversial memorials across the nation. There are memorials made for other historical figures, war victims, civil rights and there is also an array of temporary memorials. The list goes on and on. All of these memorials are divergent but are all a part of what Doss calls memorial mania and reflects our country’s obsession with history and memory. Doss asks, why this interest with experiencing the past? There are battlefield reenactments, interactive history museums, which are all about a felt experience by the visitor. These memorials call on us to feel something whether it is grief, gratitude, shame, or anger.  Some memorials, like the 9/11 monument, can stir up mixed emotions, which reminds us that these sites are mean different things for different people and there are always expectations.  Who creates these expectations for us?

Doss argues that the media can create public feeling and our understanding of self and national identity.  In the contemporary public sphere anger has become the appropriate response. Many believe anger leads to resolution. Anger is the key in memorial mania. Doss doesn’t think memorials are angry but they can induce anger. We cannot deny that there are ugly narratives in the history of our country. She brought up the disputes over the many Columbus monuments. No matter how we feel about these monuments, they are mortal. This is the final point Doss makes during her lecture.

When memorials are vandalized their existence is altered. If they are destroyed at times of political upheaval, then they are altered as creations of new identity. The concept of identity is important when analyzing the identity of citizenship and nationalism.  Memorials are the target and primary source of anger, making the revisions of narratives, in the form of these monuments, are called on as compromise. What Doss, wants us to remember is that these revisions aren’t the cure. Instead, opposition reminds us of racial/ethnic conflict in our history lingers in contemporary society.


One Response

  1. This seems like it would have been a very interesting and influential lecture to attend, especially in regards to learning about cultural vandalism. The questions brought up in this review are extremely valid in contemporary society, since many times they seem to be forgotten. I continue to question why history is so fascinating, as you stated Doss asked, and agree that we want to experience the emotions once present.

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