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    Members’ Reports

    Dell Upton
    Center 41

    Dell Upton

    Graven Images: The Unsettled Lives of Public Monuments


    Photo of the Robert E. Lee Monument, made 1886–1890 by Antonin Mercié (sculptor) and Paul Pujol (architect), as embellished in the summer of 2020. Author photograph 

    At the Center, I began a new project about the construction and destruction of public monuments. Events during the summer of 2020 challenged me to look beyond current debates over the merits of particular monuments and honorees and to think about monument building as a deeply rooted Euro-American practice. My premise is that many of the assumptions driving contemporary monument use and abuse have roots reaching back as far as antiquity. 

    What does it mean to honor someone with a sculptural monument? The biblical second commandment forbade the making and worship of graven images, a prohibition that responded to ambiguous distinctions between divinity and humanity in the ancient world. The evocation of divinity in honorific monuments was certainly a strategy of political and social self-aggrandizement. More broadly, though, such monuments provoked reflections on the nature of humanity and the differences among people.  

    The ancient ambiguity is evident in the reception of modern works such as George Washington (1840) by Horatio Greenough (1805–1852). Washington is represented in a manner that refers to ancient portrayals of Zeus and Roman emperors, which provoked outrage when the work was installed in the United States Capitol. Current conflicts over monuments to figures such as Winston Churchill and Thomas Jefferson attest to continued unease regarding the apotheosis implied by their creation and continued display. 


    Statue of the emperor Tiberius, mid-first century CE, excavated at Veii in 1811. Tiberius’s pose alludes to that of the Olympian god Zeus. Head not original to statue. Author photograph

    At the same time, monuments cannot be understood as discrete objects. They are inflected by their siting and by their relationship to other monuments, current and past. A conspicuous location—visible from a distance; in a forum or public square; adjacent to a palace, courthouse, or other locus of power; near or set apart from other monuments—as well as visual references to past and current monuments implicate individual memorials in collective arguments, albeit fragmentary and lumpy ones, that refer to common ideological and historical positions. Such collective arguments can range from simple affirmations of current sociopolitical structures to more specific interventions in contemporary events. For the classicist Jane Fejfer, for example, ancient Roman honorific statues served collectively to “convince the plebs that Rome and its classical governmental institutions would live on forever.” Early 20th-century Confederate monuments asserted the renewed dominance of white supremacy in the post–Civil War South, while many Fascist monuments in Italy depicted that regime as the legitimate heir to the events and actors of ancient Rome and the Risorgimento. It is the accumulated narrative advanced by monumental landscapes, sensed more often than explicitly recognized, that leads to the wholesale vandalism and destruction of all sorts of monuments—to “good” as well as to “bad” honorees—such as that witnessed in 2020. Both construction and destruction of monuments speak to the shifting grounds of decision-making and political legitimacy in the public realm.  

    Like sacred images, monuments are born, activated, and nurtured ritually. Typically held on the occasions of dedications and anniversaries, rituals at monuments can also celebrate or renounce real or putative ties with honorees. For example, the wealthy New Orleans merchant and slaveholder John McDonogh (1779–1850) bequeathed money to support public schools for children in the city. His will also required that a monument be erected to him and that the city’s students gather around it annually to sing songs praising him—not, he wrote, because he wanted thanks, but because children needed to learn gratitude. In 1954, 1955, and 1956, local civil rights activists boycotted the ceremony to protest inequality in education. In July 2020, McDonogh’s monument was toppled, a reminder that rituals of destruction are as important as rituals of celebration. In short, monuments also die ritually. Careful attention to motives for protest, modes of vandalism, and techniques of destruction are integral to the study of the lives of monuments.  

    All of this is to suggest that monuments are rarely as solid and permanent as they appear. They are erected on significant occasions that often have little to do with their ostensible subjects. They are moved from site to site. Attention to them varies over the years. Mostly they are ignored, but at certain meaningful times they return to public attention. In the long run, few enjoy the long, stable lives that their materials and their sponsors envisioned. This fluidity lies at the core of my project. 

    Kress-Beinecke Professor, 2020–2021 
    University of California, Los Angeles 

    Dell Upton will return to his position at the University of California, Los Angeles. His most recent book is American Architecture: A Thematic History (2019). 

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