Erika Doss Lecture

Shayna Weingast


Erika Doss Lecture

Erika Doss is a well known and very well respected art historian who currently teaches at the Univeristy of Notre Dame. I have read her work in several of my art history classes, so I jumped at the opportunity to attend her lecture. Her lecture was titled “Cultural Vandalism and Public Memory: Anger, Citizenship, and Memorials in Contemporary America,” and covered the controversial topic of public memorial art, focusing mostly on the memorial statue of Juan de Onate in New Mexico.

Erika Doss’ lecture was an informative exploration into a realm of public art that many of use experience on a regular basis but often take for granted – monuments. While most of us (the population at large) are exposed to monuments and public works on a very regularly, it is so rare that any of us really take a moment to think about the meaning behind these works. For example, the fountain behind the UMC I just recently learned is the Dalton Trumbo fountain, named for a seminal screenwriter who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. As a film major, this void of knowledge is not just embarrassing, but a reflection of the general mode of oblivion I seem to operate in.

Professor Doss began her lecture by giving a brief history of the statue of Juan de Onate, a monument of particular controversy because of the history it represents. While the actual history of Juan de Onate is shaky, the story accepted by most European-Americans is that Onate was a brave conquer who was one of the founding fathers of the south-west. In this way, Onate’s history is valorized as brave, representing an emblem of courage and conquest. HOwever, for the Pueblo Indians, who were the one that were kicked out of their home by Onate in favor of European colonization, the statue represents death and distraction. For these Native Americans, the statue only reminds them of a traumatic past and stands for a history that attempted to write their people out; the statue is a blatant celebration of the genocide of their people. During this part of the lecture, Doss touched upon an aspect of memorial art I had never considered; the ‘other’ history it ignores in favor of the dominate narrative.

Professor Doss discussed the protests enacted by the Native Americans over the years, playing close attention to one specific act of vandalism that occurred on the anniversary of Onate’s conquer of Acoma Pueblo several years ago. During the celebration, members of the Native American community cut off the foot of Onate’s memorial statue to reference a historical fact that has long been ignored; Onate cut off the right foot of every man in Acoma Pueblo as punishment for their attempted revolt. Doss discussed the emotional turmoil the memorial caused for the descendent of the victims of Onate, and how Native Americans felt victimized and were forced to question their identity as a citizen on the United States. This was the part of the lecture that carried the most emotional and intellectual depth.

Erika Doss then went on to discuss what she calls, and wrote about in her previous book, “memorial mania.” It is a reference to Americas obsession with history and remembering and how our culture is fascinated with publicizing memory through public landmarks. Doss argued that these memorials have no discernible theme or aesthetic stander, but represents our need to commemorate and historicize. Doss gave many examples of different memorials, and brought up how each has an alternative narrative that goes largely unrecognized.

Overall, I found Erika Doss’ lecture to be insightful, interesting, and challenged by knowledge of both art and history (as separate entities). Doss ended by stating that what must be sought out in order to stop these culture clashes is an alternative course for commemorating American national identity. Doss concluded by pointing to the MLK memorial as an example of a positive and successfull contemporary American memorial.

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