Visiting Scholar Lecture Review: Erika Doss

Madison Rupp
ARTH 3539
Scholar Lecture Review

Erika Doss: Cultural Vandalism and Public Memory

Erika Doss’s recent lecture focused on how memorials function in the public sphere, especially when these memorials provoke debate and controversy.  Memorials and monuments can mean different things to different groups of people, which can cause indignation and anger, which in turn can lead to vandalism.  Rather than viewing vandalism as a random delinquent act, Doss views it as a form of discourse that can lead to a more complete understanding of the event that the memorial commemorates.


To start her lecture, Doss used the story of the statue of Juan de Onate.  In the town of Espanola, New Mexico, the statue commemorating this Spanish conquistador suffered an act of vandalism: the cutting off of his left foot.  Obviously, this statue sparked some controversy in order for this to have occurred.  The reason for this vandalism was Onate’s contentious history:  the local Hispanic community viewed him as a brave conquistador, while the local Pueblo community viewed him as a vicious murderer.  The Pueblo communities’ views were certainly justified, and in order to voice their indignation, they did to Onate’s statue what Onate had done centuries earlier to Pueblo men: cutting off the left foot.  Here, one can see how vandalism really is a form of public conversation.  By cutting off Onate’s left foot, the person who vandalized this statue emphasized another side of Onate’s history, one that is not so flattering but one that should not be forgotten.
Doss then went on to make the argument that modern American society is going through a phase of ‘memorial mania,’ which is a term she coined herself to describe the national obsession with experiencing history hands-on.  Memorial mania is evident in the hundreds of new memorials appearing in the US, both permanent and temporary, and with no unifying theme, as well as in interactive museums and in battle re-enactments.  These memorials are driven by the issues of self-definition and public memory, meaning that each person experiences a memorial uniquely (due to their own identity and own life experiences), so memorials mean different things to different people.   When meanings get misconstrued, it can cause heated controversy over the meaning of the memorial in general.  Memorials guide the viewer’s emotions in experiencing an event of history, and can evoke any number of emotions, including: sadness, guilt, shame, admiration, and pride; and in the most intense instances of memorial mania, memorials can provoke anger.
This leads Doss to her next point, based on a somewhat harsh (but realistic) observation: that anger characterizes American culture.  According to Doss, anger is commended as a socially appropriate reaction to being wronged.  Anger seeps into every sphere of the public, including politics, popular culture, and memorial traditions.  As noted in the last paragraph, everyone reacts to a memorial differently, and sometimes not in a positive light.  Memorials themselves are not angry things. But they can evoke anger when the viewer feels that the memorial violates a personal value or belief, or that the memorial shows an biased depiction of a historical event.

One way that people express anger over a memorial is through vandalization.  While vandalism itself is a crime and is looked down upon by most of society,  Doss credits vandalism as a type of discourse.  This is because when people vandalize monuments, it is usually because that person sees the values that the monument embraces as misled, offensive, or inappropriate.  Doss calls vandalism ‘vengeful truth telling,’ because the act expresses not only anger, but a revision of history.  As an example, one can look at the many statues of Christopher Columbus that are vandalized each year.  People vandalize these monuments in order to protest Columbus’s hero status of discovering the Americas, when really the man was quite cruel and inhumane to native peoples.  By vandalizing monuments to Columbus, people are trying to tell the darker side of his history, which until recent times has been largely ignored.  Vandalism is a powerful tool in public communication.

Doss concluded with the story of Juan de Onate.  The foot was replaced on the statue, but the vandalism started a public conversation.  The result of this conversation was that people recognized the need to acknowledge all aspects of Onate’s history.  A sculpture garden was built adjacent to the statue, commemorating the Native Americans that were so poorly treated by Onate and his men.  Plaques were also added, so that visitors could read more information about the statues and what they stand for.  In this case, vandalism lead to a revision of the memorial, therefore a revision of the history it commemorates.

As someone who spent some of my childhood in the Washington DC area, I had grown accustomed to (and slightly numbed to) the presence of memorials in American society.  Because of this, I had never fully realized their power over people.  I would visit the Lincoln Memorial and feel respect and awe; I would visit the Korean War Memorial and feel hushed admiration and gratitude; I would visit the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial and feel somber and reflective.  But I never realized that this was exactly what I was meant to feel.  Memorials create a physical place to experience history, and this can have powerful effects on public memory.  Each individual that visits a memorial relates to it in a different way, and it is the visitor’s reaction that measures the memorial’s effectiveness.  When this reaction is vandalism, it means that the memorial has made people think about the event it commemorates, even in disagreement, and even to the extent of wanting to revise it.  Memorials are powerful reminders of history, and can truly make one think about the history of their own times.

3 Responses

  1. Hi Maddi,
    Good job on your artist review. It was nice to read. I was sad to hear that you are numb to the historically important memorials in our American society given you are in a place you can experience it fully. You get to see the most influential memorials in our country and yet you only feel what society tells you to feel instead of developing your own feelings. That must make you so upset. keep up the good work!

    • Sorry, I don’t mean to be say that makes you upset! I am saying that its disheartening for me to hear!

  2. Hi Paige!
    Don’t worry, I totally understand what you were saying, no offense taken. I definitely still see the value of these memorials, especially when I see others having a real emotional reaction to them. They are an important part of our society. I guess what I’m trying to express is that for me, I have seen them all so many times that it’s kind of the same feeling as watching a movie a bunch of times. You kind of know what to expect, so the emotional response is sort of dull compared to when you first saw it. Also, after Erika’s lecture, it really made me aware that a lot of my personal feelings have been orchestrated. Knowing this, it made me more cynical in hindsight. I guess ignorance would be bliss. But your comments have inspired me (for the next visit) to try and look at these memorials differently. Thanks!

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