by Jennifer K. Favorite

Kirk Savage, Ph.D. is Professor of Art of the United States at the University of Pittsburgh, and is the author of several important works on monuments and memorials in the United States that shed light on the various ways national history and identity can be simultaneously construed and constructed through public sculpture and space. For his scholarship and his contributions to the field, Public Art Dialogue has named Dr. Savage the recipient of the 2016 PAD award for achievement in public art, to be given during the upcoming CAA conference in Washington, D.C. To mark the occasion PAD asked Dr. Savage to offer his thoughts on contemporary questions of public art and memorials in the nation’s capital.

There has been a growing desire for a national monument commemorating the legacy of slavery in the United States. (See, for example, a recent editorial in the New York Times.) What are the best practices that can be implemented to address this call for action in Washington, D.C. or elsewhere?

The whole point of a slavery memorial should be to move slavery from the margins (e.g. black history month) and into mainstream consciousness as a national crime against humanity. Slavery infiltrates almost everything whites celebrate and mythologize in early national history (the Revolution and the founding fathers, the pioneers and the settlement of the West) and leaves its shadow over the rest. It’s easy to say what should or should not happen: the act of commemoration should not be about guilt or apologies but about truth and reckoning. It’s hard to do this in one monument, and there is always the danger that people will focus on the symbolics rather than the hard work of overcoming slavery’s legacy, which is ubiquitous. But if a monument can create discussion, and if discussion can lead to action, then it’s worthwhile. One idea would be to create a focal point somewhere on the Mall – it wouldn’t have to be huge and it wouldn’t have to be complex – and then distribute other markers and memorials throughout the city to map the old slave jails and auction sites, the debarkation points, sites of slave labor, refugee camps for escaped slaves during the Civil War, postwar communities, and so on. Connect all this to a robust virtual monument in cyberspace that traces some of the legacies of slavery through to the present day, in economic discrimination, housing segregation, judicial and incarceration practices, disfranchisement, lending practices, and educational policy. Create apps that address these issues in real time in the present. In other words, think of this as a distributed monument with distributed agency.

How do you envision the use and design of the National Mall changing over the coming decades?

In one sense people don’t want the Mall to change. They come there to experience what is already familiar, if not from their own past experience than from other people’s and from other media. But of course the Mall will change because it has always changed. Somehow it must become more accessible, more friendly to pedestrians and bikes, more biodiverse, more lively, and simply more fun. One day I think that will happen. In a more serious vein, the biggest question is whether its military emphasis will become even more emphatic. The early 20th-century Mall was designed as a monument to the Civil War and white reunification; the late 20th century Mall became a monument to the Cold War and America’s postcolonial military interventions. It would be a terrible legacy if the 21st century Mall became a monument to the “global war on terrorism” and the high-security state. But to avoid this outcome there will have to be some kind of tectonic shift in the nationalist landscape – an emotional break from the prison of American exceptionalism.

There may come a time when the public desires to build national memorials to the contemporary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the National Mall. In addition to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial¸ what other models exist, in the United States or globally, for addressing the histories of controversial international conflicts?

I would like to see monuments that begin to connect loss across national and cultural boundaries. The VVM is an interesting example. Even though it does not acknowledge the losses of the Vietnamese, which were of course far greater on both sides of that civil war than the losses suffered by the U.S., the memorial’s amazing power connects viewers across divides. Creating a temporary, shifting community of viewers, centered on physical and mental reflection, has given the names of the dead much more staying power than a patriotic, didactic memorial ever would have. The lesson of this, I think, is that people want to engage beyond themselves; they want to share their loss with others, with a larger community. We’ve reached a point where that sense of community and shared loss must extend beyond national borders, though it hasn’t really even begun to happen (witness the commemoration of September 11). I think the interesting work in this vein is happening in lots of temporary artist projects and installations, most of which are under the radar in the arena of commemoration.

Are there lesser known works of public art or memory in Washington, D.C. that you think warrant more attention?

There are many largely forgotten works outside the center of town, which various agencies in Washington have been trying to get tourists to visit for years. I particularly like some of the house museums (like the Frederick Douglass house in Anacostia or the Woodrow Wilson house in NW, to name two antithetical examples). The whole city is an amazing repository (or graveyard, some have said) of wonderfully antiquated public sculpture from all different eras of the nation’s existence, many dedicated to historical figures that are mere footnotes today. To take just one example, we might pick Albert Pike and ask why this ex-Confederate Freemason was given a heroic statue and what light the work sheds on 19th-century history and Jim Crow Washington.

Are there other spaces in the United States that could or already do play host to national memory in a similar way to the National Mall?

I don’t think there is anything quite comparable in the U.S., though Philadelphia has tried to create a Mall-type experience for the era of the founding fathers and Richmond created its ambitious boulevard of monuments to the Confederacy. Gettysburg is one of the most intense concentrations of public monuments anywhere, though it is largely seen and understood as three days of battle history. New York dominates the narrative of September 11 with its huge investments in the memorial-museum complex at the World Trade Center, but that colossal effort even more marginalizes the earlier history of the city (and of the site itself). I think that lesser-known sites such as Little Bighorn, for the Indian Wars, or Jamestown, Virginia, for the beginning of slavery, could and should become host sites of U.S. memory akin to the National Mall.

Winter 2016 | Volume 8, Issue 1
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