Visiting Scholar Review: Erika Doss

Mary Robbins

Visiting Scholar Review

Erika Doss

Erika Doss is a well-known art historian who has written seven books and many important scholarly articles; she formerly taught here at CU and is now the head of the department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. I have read her work in a number of my art history classes, and had the privilege of attending her visiting scholar lecture earlier in the semester. The topic that Erika Doss addressed was a controversial one, which dealt with public memorials in America today. Her lecture, titled “Cultural Vandalism and Public Memory: Anger, Citizenship, and Memorials in Contemporary America,” presented a number of memorials, with different meanings, commemorations, and controversies surrounding each, but she focused most prominently on the controversial nature of a memorial statue of Juan de Onate.

The representation of Onate is of particular controversy because of the unresolved history surrounding the Spanish conquistador and the Native Americans who he conquered. The history of Juan de Onate and his conquests changes depending on who is telling it. To many European-Americans, Onate was a brave conqueror who helped in establishing a free new world; in this sense, the statue dedicated to him is meant to represent liberty and courage. But to the Pueblo Indians, who were on the receiving-end of Onate’s conquests, Onate was a villainous murderer. The Pueblo Indians (and all people of Native American heritage) who still reside in New Mexico, Texas, and the surrounding areas, whose ancestors were violated and killed, are constantly reminded of the horror of the past. For these Native Americans, the statue of Onate stands for racism, inequality, and slavery; it is a celebration of genocide that blatantly references the fact that those who are in control now are still unwelcoming towards the Native Americans and that inequality perpetuates in contemporary America.

Erika Doss discussed the protests of the Pueblo Indians, highlighting one particular act of vandalism. On the anniversary of Onate’s conquest of Acoma Pueblo, members of the Native American community cut off the foot of Onate’s memorial statue, as a reference to the horrific demand of Onate to cut off the right foot of every man in Acoma Pueblo as punishment for their attempted revolt. Doss focused on the emotional turmoil that the memorial caused for the descendants of the victims of Onate. A wound was reopened in the Pueblo Indian community, which resulted in grief, sadness, and unrest. The Native Americans felt victimized and were made to question their identity and their citizenship in this nation. Clearly, the emotional grief turned to anger and resulted in heated emotional debate regarding public artwork, the use of public funding, and the Native Americans’ protest that the true history, which was based on slavery and murder, should be acknowledged rather than covered up with some false tale of heroism and unity.

In her lecture, Doss explained what she calls “memorial mania” as the American obsession with history, remembering, and publicizing memory through the construction of thousands of memorials, both permanent (statues, monuments, etc) and temporary (roadside crosses, flowers, etc). She claimed that Americans have the need to express issues of memory, history, and identity through visible public representations. These countless memorials have no clear aesthetic or theme, but represent a wide public feeling for the need to commemorate and make history known.

As can be seen in the Onate example, public commemoration of histories leads to public dispute and clashing between cultures. Anger, and political and cultural unrest are direct affects of this “memorial mania” and the persistent demand for acknowledgement. As memorials often commemorate controversial historical figures or events, and the correct/ appropriate historical representation or memory is often disputed and disagreed upon by different groups of people, the public clashing of cultures that surrounds memorials stems from real emotions and issues. The resulting anger is perpetuated by the media, as the media presents anger as an acceptable and appropriate response to political and cultural issues. This “memorial mania” causes culture wars and perpetuates further schisms between groups of people, often marked by vandalism or iconoclasm of the memorial or monument responsible for bringing controversial issues to light. The vandalism or eventual destruction (Doss mentions the toppling of the statues of Lenin, Stalin, and Hussein) of monuments is proof of their mortality and fragility, as well as a reference to the fragility of civilized society.

What must be sought in order to curb these culture clashes is an alternative course for commemorating American national identity in the future. Doss concluded her lecture by noting the MLK memorial as a positive example of a successful contemporary American memorial. This is a new type of commemorative public artwork, which stands for civil rights and a positive national identity, and shows hope for a more emotionally productive American future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: