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.