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As America examines its conscience and resolves, yet again, to form a more perfect union, public art is caught in the reckoning. Confederate generals are galloping into exile. Conquering explorers are being boxed up. Once-revered oppressors are being yanked from their pedestals, and towering authoritarians are taking nosedives into the concrete. On September 24, a virtual panel convened by the University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Ross Gallery considered the state of public art in Monuments and Social Justice.
“We are all in a profound moment of cultural conflict around our built environment,” said Randall F. Mason, associate professor and chair of Historic Preservation in Penn’s Weitzman School of Design. Mason, who leads the Urban Heritage Project, said individual memorials should be considered part of a system. Taken as a whole, statues, markers, and sites considered worthy of honor shape our collective memory. This built heritage includes items we “abhor and those we want to preserve.”
History isn’t always written by the victors
The built environment at any point represents the narrative devised by the prevailing power structure. Patricia Wilson Aden, outgoing president and CEO of the African American Museum in Philadelphia (in October, she will assume similar duties at Memphis’s Blues Foundation), noted that the flowering of memorials to the Confederacy long after the Civil War were designed to rewrite history.
“The Daughters of the Confederacy erected 2,000 statues to venerate the Confederate cause,” Aden explained. Reframing failed insurrection as a glorious lost cause lent subliminal support to laws circumventing Reconstruction amendments to the US Constitution, which were intended to ensure equal rights for African Americans.
Aden said public art also errs by omission, overlooking painful events at the expense of vested groups and significant issues. She noted the intersection of Front and High (now Market) streets in Philadelphia, which was a point of entry for Africans and the site of an active slave market. “If we can memorialize Christopher Columbus, who never set foot here,” she asked, why not these enslaved people?
In 2017, Monument Lab initiated a two-month quest to consider “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?” Contemporary artists responded with temporary works, which were installed around the city, and passers-by were invited to comment, critique, and propose.
Monument Lab participants Ken Lum and Sharon Hayes, both of Penn’s School of Design, took part in the panel discussion. In a recent New Yorker interview, Lum, professor and chair of Fine Arts, said, “We’ve been taught to appreciate statues. We’ve been taught to read them as unitary and their message as unified, rooted in consensus, as opposed to rooted in a subjective decision that is only a reflection of a segment of the community.”
Lum, who served as Monument Lab’s curatorial advisor, outlined “guiding thoughts” for those creating public art. Consider audience, setting, and the norms and history of the environment in which a work will live, he advised. Public art should not be too cohesive, Lum cautioned. It should be somewhat dissonant; it should defy being “claimed” by its environment.
Hayes, a professor and practicing artist, observed that public monuments have tended to feature solitary white males: “The inescapable conclusion is that there have been multiple exclusions in Philadelphia’s public art.” Her Monument Lab work If They Should Ask drove that point home. It consisted of a cluster of nine empty pedestals in Rittenhouse Square, unadorned save for a ticker tape of engraved names, all notable local women such as Lear Green, who fled slavery; suffragist Alice Paul; and actor/singer Ethel Waters—none of whom have been memorialized in Philly.
What’s included, what’s ignored
“We have not done very well at creating anti-racist art,” said Penn architectural historian and professor emeritus David B. Brownlee. “We need monumental art that speaks the language of our times … that engages audiences more deeply.”
Offering hope, Brownlee, a fellow of the Society of Architectural Historians, and who served on the Philadelphia Historical Commission for 15 years, cited memorials presenting more inclusive and nuanced interpretations, including Washington, DC’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a polished black granite wall that tangibly summons the true cost of war. Also New York’s Tribute in Light, a ghost-lit image of the World Trade Center towers that appears annually on September 11.
Taking the long view, all monuments are temporary. Brownlee said that creators and consumers of public monuments should accept that “honesty is an open-ended concept,” that can change over time. He suggested incorporating impermanence into memorials, allowing them to evolve with human understanding.
What about the sturdy bronze men currently being levered off pedestals, plastered with graffiti, and set aflame? Hayes isn’t troubled: “I see the removals we’re seeing as a dismantling of white supremacy,” she said.
“Altering, moving, demolishing [public monuments] teaches more than leaving them alone,” Mason said. “Conservation, preservation are, like collective memory, fraught processes.”
For the monuments that survive, Aden recommends adding context to transform outdated symbols into teaching tools: “We have to accompany monuments with some sort of narrative.” Public art should do more than honor. It should disrupt, unsettle, and illuminate.
Image description: A photo of artist Sharon Hayes’s If They Should Ask installation. Nine cement pedestals with no statues on them cluster on the brick paving of a city park.
What, When, Where
Monuments and Social Justice. A panel conversation presented by Arthur Ross Gallery livestreamed on September 24, 2020. Moderated by Arthur Ross executive director and university curator Lynn Marsden-Atlass, with Patricia Wilson Aden, president and CEO, African American Museum in Philadelphia; David B. Brownlee, professor emeritus, 19th-century European art, University of Pennsylvania; Sharon Hayes, professor of fine arts, University of Pennsylvania; Ken Lum, professor and chair, Department of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania; Randall F. Mason, associate professor and chair, Department of Historic Preservation, University of Pennsylvania. More info here.
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