Historically, studies of early 20th-century Pueblo painting focused on the role non-Native anthropologists, artists and patrons played in fostering and marketing Pueblo art. In the last two decades, there has been a shift in approach spearheaded by scholars in the…
University to Hold Public Symposium Exploring Role of Monuments in Society
Scholars, artists, curators, activists, local historians and members of the public will convene at Syracuse University Oct. 6-7 to discuss the rightful place of monuments in our society and the increasing complexity they represent today in terms of their cultural, historical and social meanings and significance.
The dialogue will occur at an all-day symposium, “Monumental Concerns.” It is being presented by University artist in residence Carrie Mae Weems H’17 and the University’s Office of Strategic Initiatives in conjunction with the Syracuse University Art Museum.
The symposium will take place on Saturday, Oct. 7, beginning at 8:30 a.m. in Watson Theater, located in the Robert B. Menschel Media Center, 316 Waverly Ave., Syracuse. The symposium is free and open to the public; guests are asked to register online. Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART) will be available both days.
An opening presentation featuring Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman from the For Freedoms Collective will be held Friday, Oct. 6, at 4 p.m. in the Shaffer Art Building’s Shemin Auditorium. A reception will follow in the Syracuse University Art Museum, also located in Shaffer Art Building.
The discussion will focus on:
- the role of monuments in contemporary society and their contested histories;
- the pros and cons of monument adjustment, removal or displacement;
- why racial conflicts erupt over the meanings and representations of monuments and how they can be addressed; and
- how the emotional and nationalistic role that monuments often play can be acknowledged, even while advocacy occurs for more inclusive historical framing.
Among the participants will be Weems; Willis Thomas; Gottesman; Paul M. Farber, director of Monument Lab in Philadelphia; Idris Brewster, executive director of Kinfolk and an artist using artificial intelligence to create interventions in public spaces; Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh; and Julie Ehrlich, director of presidential initiatives and chief of staff with the Mellon Foundation.
“The October convening brings together some of the leading thinkers and practitioners around monuments in the United States. In delving into the many histories that these public artworks commemorate, we will be addressing important and timely issues,” says Melissa Yuen, interim chief curator at the Syracuse University Art Museum. “It is our hope that the event will be the first step in helping us to build community and create a sense of belonging across the University in ways that will allow us to have productive conversations about these difficult topics.”
Below, Weems addresses why it is important to have this discussion, and how it can help move us forward.
01What is—or what defines—a monument?
Monuments, at least traditionally, have been considered works of art, sculpture or murals, etc., that are meant to be held permanently in place to mark events of political, cultural and social significance. It is not a temporary thing but meant to be a permanent object.
02How have monuments come to carry additional cultural, social and racial conflicts?
There has been a long history of contested monuments, it’s really not new. What is new, at this historical moment in the United States, is kind of a reckoning with what these monuments have come to mean, in particular historical monuments or monuments that celebrate the notion of the hero. With the Confederacy, how have these monuments still maintained their huge focus in the South? We are dealing with these ideas throughout the North as well. The Roosevelt Monument that was in front of the National History Museum in New York City was only removed in 2022. We are at this moment where there are lots of questions about what constitutes legitimate history of the United States. And monuments play a role in that. What do we remember, what do we cherish, what do we value? What does that have to say about who we are as Americans?
03Do you think originators understood how a monument would evolve in how it was viewed over time?
For the most part, no. Most people enter an agreement with an assumption when they take on an assignment or a commission. And it’s a wonderful thing to have a commission of a major monument. These were not small projects; they were monumental projects that had a lot to do with political and social thinking of the time. There have been a lot of questions in the recent past about monuments and their significance and whether they should be replaced, whether they should be torn down, what should happen to them.
With the death of George Floyd in 2020 has come a reckoning. There was no way that anyone could turn away and say that these are exaggerations, these are excuses. We are seeing someone literally die before our very eyes and the world responded viscerally to that attack. Institutions have followed that. What is the role of the institution, what are their responsibilities to history, to restorative justice, to affirmation, to allowing other voices that have been historically excluded to be included in discussion and debate about what should be visualized? Who should be our heroes as we look to the future? And what that is going to be we really don’t know yet.
There are things that are going on, museums are responding, cultural institutions are responding, and sometimes that response is almost a knee-jerk reaction, not carefully planned and thought out because they didn’t lead the debate, they are following the debate. They are simply trying to play catch-up to where the masses are.
04Why is it so important for us to have this discussion?
It is really critical to how we will define ourselves in the future. I am not necessarily saying that monuments should be built; I am not saying that all monuments should be removed. We have entered a critical juncture in our history where we are simply asking questions about what should be allowed to stand, what we need to ask questions about, what should those questions be, what are some of the resolves? Is there a conflict resolution model that we might be able to put in place? Are there models that we might be able to develop to assist historians, museums, institutions, city governments, etc., in figuring out ways that they might deal with these situations?
I have been photographing monuments for more than 30 years, standing in front of museums and institutions saying that they need to pay attention to the changing tide that is happening slowly but surely across our country. Part of this is this debate around what we value in public space and what needs to change in public space so that we all feel as though our greatest ideas about what it means to be American are represented in public space.
In the spring, Weems plans to organize a series of roundtable conversations with artists, lawyers, scholars and other stakeholders with the intent of resolving some of the questions raised at the October symposium.