Lately I’ve been considering how Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed* can help me to study memorials. The book isn’t about visual representation and it isn’t a typical source for art historians. However, it is prominent in educational literature and many of the author’s thoughts apply to the contentious world of visual culture. Freire (1921-1997), a Brazilian educator, argued that a restructured educational system rooted in collaboration, critical reflection paired with organized action, and real-world issues could empower people to fight social oppression.
Of his many important ideas, his perspectives about research have strengthened my interests in inclusive, participatory approaches. Similar to his suggestion that teachers and students work in a dualistic manner (both groups instruct and learn as they critically assess problems), Freire proposes that researchers work as partners with people “who would normally be considered objects of that investigation.” (87) He identifies these people as co-investigators and suggests that the researcher include their views in the evaluation process. For Freire and sociologist Maria Edy Ferreira, the purpose of the research shouldn’t center on studying people. Instead, researchers should seek to understand people’s situation or experiences in the world. (91) To conduct research cooperatively, Freire encourages researchers to focus on understanding through sympathetic observation. This approach forgoes dictating to the participants.
As I discussed in my previous post “Learning through Participation,” I employ collaborative, socially based methods for my study of lynching memorials. One of my main challenges involves addressing current criticisms of therapeutic memorials (“victim memorials”). In addition to considering the role of sentimentalization and art historian Kirk Savage’s useful historical discussion of “victim memorials,”* I believe Freire’s work will help me to reveal the political dimensions. His attention to how oppressed groups can work together to improve their condition will help me to dismantle censures such as “Why are these people getting a monument? Why is their pain more important than the pain of someone else?” Freire’s arguments could help to enrich memorial scholarship by identifying the assumptions of these perspectives.
*Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin Books, 1993, 1970.
*Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 236-244.
In my research I’m blending approaches from the fields of memorial culture* and public art* for a holistic perspective as I study how people commemorate lynching violence in the U.S. To uncover social significance I attend memorial events and interview artists and various community members. My direct involvement with these contemporary practices encourages me to also ponder the role of the scholar in the production of culture. When I meet with folks, I realize that my presence and interest in their work may influence their understanding of the memorial process. Because I’m focusing on the social, I also need to indicate my degree of participation and people’s reactions to my actions in a thoughtful manner.
A few weeks ago I presented a paper* at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Annual Remembrance event in Duluth, Minnesota. Members of the board asked me to address how the memorial operates as a sacred space. This event was my first talk at a memorial site and I was honored to participate in the ceremony. Although I’ve presented my research at several venues, this occasion posed its own challenges. I couldn’t rely on the visual comparison method via PowerPoint that academic art historians often employ. I was outside in the memorial space. So my experience discussing objects for museum visitors proved helpful in this circumstance. I focused on the history of the lynching, the community’s present activities, and the physical space of the memorial. The studies of cultural geographer Kenneth Foote* and cultural theorist Marita Sturken” helped me to highlight how the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial functions as hallowed ground.
For the sake of time, I didn’t delve into current discussions in memorial studies centered on “victim memorials” or the ambiguities associated with the concept of community. (I will wrestle with those complex issues at a later time.) I aimed to provide a balanced, contextualized assessment. Also, I spoke with reporters about how the Duluth memorial differs from other commemorative practices. While my participation did identify the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial as noteworthy, I tried not to steer any of the committee members’ decisions about the memorial. Afterwards, several residents thanked me for providing this overview and specific attention to the spatial aspects of Duluth’s memorial.
The process of evolving into a scholar entails identifying one’s allegiances, values, and mindset. Through my interdisciplinary orientation, I’ve realized that I’m not interested in traditional notions of the scholar as someone who tells individuals and communities how they should memorialize persons or events. Instead, I understand my position as providing historical context, demonstrating similarities and differences between memorials, sparking discussions, facilitating the memorial-making processes by helping communities discover related projects, and learning from the actions of communities and my participation in commemorations. For me, research is about collaboration.
*PDF copy of my address “The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial as Hallowed Ground” – Autry-CJMM as Hallowed Ground-remembrance event 6-14-2013
I would like to thank the following organizations for supporting my recent research trip to Duluth, Minnesota: The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Board and the Department of Art History at the University of Delaware.
A Few Key References
*Memorial Studies– Savage, Young, and Winter encourage scholars to consider social issues
- Kurt Savage, “History, Memory, and Monuments: An Overview of the Scholarly Literature on Commemoration, http://www.nps.gov/history/history/resedu/savage.htm.
- James Edward Young, “America’s Holocaust: Memory and the Politics of Identity,” in The Americanization of the Holocaust, edited by H. Flanzbaum, Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University, 1999.
- Jay M. Winter, Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the 20th Century, New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2006.
- Tom Finkelpearl, Dialogues in Public Art, Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2000.
- Tom Finkelpearl, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, Durham, NC: Duke University, 2013.
- Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2002.
- Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2004.
*Cultural Geography and Collective Memory
- Kenneth Foote, Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, Austin, TX: University of Texas, 2003, 7-33.
- Marita Sturken, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero, Durham, NC: Duke University, 2007, 200.
- Clayton Jackson Memorial Inc. Announces 2013 Week of Remembrance (northlandsnewscenter.com)
- City asks Indian Group to Remove Eagle Feather Staff from Duluth Civic Center Grounds, Duluth News Tribune, 7/10/2013
- Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial [Recap of 2013], YouTube
Lately I’ve been revising my Pinterest boards so that they engage key concerns I have about art history. I began using Pinterest, an online customizable set of bulletin boards, last summer when I taught History of Photography. The boards for arth318snapshot served as a resource for my undergraduate students and broader publics. I later started my own artstuffmatters‘ set of boards. Initially it focused mainly on books about various subject areas. I didn’t really do much with it. However, I recently had a “eureka moment” that sparked a different, more passionate direction.
Last fall at the Imagining America October 2012 conference, I heard a presentation that continues to inspire and challenge me. Dr. Marta Vega, Executive Director and Founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center and African Diaspora Institute, centered her address on “inquietudes,” things that make one feel ill at ease, in relationships between academia and the wider world. She argued that many academics don’t engage community organizations as partners or as higher education institutions. Because they don’t value the knowledge and experience of these agencies, these scholars can’t actually engage most people. She urged the scholarly sphere to recognize that it is a part of community instead of promoting hierarchical behaviors. If we are serious about civic engagement and creating enduring social change, we need to foster connections between people. We need to make our arts centers inclusive.
These ideas resonated for me because in my work as a graduate student I sometimes feel apprehensive about scholarly research, dissemination methods, and traditional constructions of the discipline. One of my major inquietudes involves issues of inclusion and diversity. When I hear about diversity in art history, it’s usually in regards to museums careers. In the academic sphere most of this discussion involves courses in art of non-western cultures. While varied course offerings are very important, we need to make this strategy a part of a system that spans types of art, chronologies, and fields. We need to consider full inclusion and diversity in relation to our research and pedagogical methods as well. We should communicate this focus to our undergraduate and graduate students. (I have encountered more than one art history graduate student who mistakenly believes that diversity-related topics only pertain to modern and contemporary art. One person even told me that race is only a relevant topic for those who study African or African-American art.) Our lack of attention to community and vernacular arts compounds this problem. Additionally, we need to consider how we can encourage people of diverse races and ethnic backgrounds to study and teach art history. The discipline sorely lacks diversity in terms of students and faculty members. Addressing these matters can help us to engage broader publics and demonstrate the significance of our discipline and the humanities.
I have created boards for topics I’d like to see more art historians critically engage – diversity, community arts, public scholarship, digital scholarship, teaching techniques, and image use among others. These boards contain links to resources that I would have loved to know about when I started graduate school. I hope students, instructors, and others interested in the arts find this collection helpful. If you have suggestions for the boards, please let me know through the comment feature here or on Pinterest. As I work to create positive change in the discipline, I’ll continue blogging about these inquietudes in future posts because this platform is one way to explore, expand, and celebrate my connection to community.
“Art History Department Explores Diversity, Accessibility” The Oberlin Review, 4/17/2013
When I was in Los Angeles a few of weeks ago, I explored Ken Gonzales-Day’s Lynching Walking Tour from his Erased Lynching series, 2002-2011. While journeying on this path through the El Pueblo and Civic Center areas with a print-out of the tour instructions, I was often struck by the lack of physical markers on the landscape. This brutal yet significant history involves multiple bodies. But the tour sites mask those bodies.
This experience made me return to my ruminations on how people memorialize trauma. Art about devastating historical events and other violent ordeals engages difficult issues of representation. How does one express the effects of suffering on the body? Is figurative art too literal? Is it too revealing? Does depicting a person’s body in pain remove her/his subjectivity? Is abstraction a more responsible choice? Or is abstraction insensitive? Does it use form to mask human feelings? What is the most appropriate way to represent trauma experienced by individuals versus groups? Is absence a more ethical strategy when dealing with violence involving spectacle and fetishization? What are the sociopolitical repercussions of these choices?
These are difficult questions to confront. Artists make personal choices here that sometimes become more complex when working for commissions. When the work is for outdoor public art, the stakes are even higher because the decision-making process involves more voices and a greater number of people will interact with the work.
This conundrum is central to the memorials of lynching violence that I study. For example, in Duluth, Minnesota, artists Carla Stetson and Anthony Peyton Porter, and memorial board members of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial opted to include naturalistic figurative reliefs that restore the victims’ bodies to an intact state. Sculptor Carla Stetson even elevated the social status of each man by dressing the figures in middle-class attire instead of clothing resembling those of itinerant laborers. In contrast, in Waco, which is located in Central Texas, an area with an extremely high number of lynchings, residents have had trouble building consensus about commemorating this aspect of their history. While they haven’t established any outdoor artworks or markers to memorialize the lynchings, they did produce three resolution statements. Community members presented two of these at outdoor public gatherings.
The lack of physical forms commemorating lynching violence in the U.S. contrasts greatly with how we memorialize the Holocaust in our built environments. Artists memorializing the Holocaust sometimes employ abstraction as Joel Shapiro did in his Loss and Regeneration, 1993, Washington, D.C. However, many employ figurative art that depicts effects of pain on the body like Nathan Rapoport’s 1964 Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs in downtown Philadelphia or Elbert Weinberg’s Holocaust Memorial, 1979 in Wilmington, Delaware. While these works highlight anguish, the figures aren’t personalized. Instead of depicting particular individuals, these memorials present anonymous, stylized stand-ins to represent an ethnic group.
After I finished the Lynching Walking Tour, I walked into a park off N. Grand Avenue in the Civic Center area. I happened upon a memorial to genocide in the Ukraine (see photo at right). The artist and the committee obviously felt that stylized figurative art that features the body in a diminished condition was the most powerful way to communicate their message. Again, we have types instead of individuals. As I was looking at this structure, I felt that it was somewhat ironic to come across this memorial to violence that occurred in Europe after witnessing the lack of material commemorative signs to the violence that occurred on the streets of Los Angeles.
- The scale of Michael Arad‘s beautiful and austere pools on the architectural footprint of the World Trade Center is impressive. The immense size prohibits the ground-level viewer from seeing into the bottom of the open grave-like centers.
- The waterfalls create a very dynamic element. The persistent sound of water is probably soothing. But on a stormy day such as when I visited, the flow of water was unsettling. The unruly waves of water blowing out of the pool created a highly dramatic aspect that I didn’t anticipate.
- The park-like space encourages contemplation and interaction. But it is counter-acted by the heavily guarded borders. As I expected, the area is highly regulated. Visitors have to secure passes to enter and go through airport-like security measures. But I hadn’t thought a great deal about how these restrictions intervene with the city layout and public memory until I was at the memorial.
- Additionally, after following the roped paths to the exit, a gift store – the visitor center, confronts the visitor. This consumerist feature relates the memorial to the prevalent museum strategy of blockbuster art exhibitions and, as Professor Marita Sturken describes, the “kitchificscation of experience.” Yet, the memorial visitor fortunately isn’t forced to walk through the shop as is the case at many museums.
In a 2012 Huffington Post editorial, Sturken argued that the National September 11 Memorial needs to contextualize 9/11 within the broader realm of human rights issues. She cites various memorial strategies that people have implemented in several South American countries.
As an art historian, I appreciate her position. Yet I think it’s important to note the role of politics in shaping the public memory of 9/11. I think the National September 11 Memorial is responding to our current situation that remains embroiled in a contentious flux involving definitions of national tragedy, military conflict, anti-terrorist measures, and citizenship. Similar to the surrounding construction zone, this memorial is still in a state of evolution. With time the memorial’s interpretative strategies will probably change and perhaps become more expansive as Sturken suggests.
- City Room: Flood Risk Will Not Alter Placement of 9/11 Remains (cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com)
“The photographer’s most important and likewise most difficult task is not learning to manage his camera, or to develop, or to print. It is learning to see photographically – that is, learning to see his subject matter in terms of the capacities of his tools and processes, so that he can instantaneously translate the elements and values in a scene before him into the photograph he wants to make.” – Edward Weston
I read Edward Weston’s “Seeing Photographically” essay years ago. But I only came to grasp its meaning this year as I was taking a digital photography class. Although I’m not sure how Weston would have felt about digital photography since he wasn’t a fan of color, hated what he called photo-painting, and preferred simple equipment, I believe my learning experience corresponds to the core idea of his essay – the need for good composition. Weston urged photographers to carefully frame their subjects. He believed this process should happen as the photographer captured the image, not later in the darkroom.
In the past I’ve created many poor images because I didn’t pay attention to composition, focus, lighting, or image quality. While my shots were usually ok as informal snapshots, they were horrible for sharing my research. This problem was doubly worrisome because I study the history of photography. Although I often examine well composed photographs, I wasn’t spending much thought on constructing my own images. One day while presenting blurry images in a PowerPoint, I realized that I needed to upgrade my camera and learn how to take photographs of outdoor art and landscapes that actually conveyed the work and experience of being in those spaces.
The course that I took at Delaware Art Museum taught me how to use the dslr that I purchased for my fieldwork. As I learned how to frame my shots, I began to better understand photographic techniques such as depth of field. In addition to now being better able to teach my students, the class has also encouraged me to see public art differently. Now when I’m looking I’m thinking about how to best document and capture the spirit of the works. Consequently, I spend more time closely looking at the works than I did before. After taking numerous shots of a memorial, I study each image at home on my computer. This process often leads me to realize what I’ve missed. So when possible, I return to sites to re-look.
For instance, a couple of years ago I had visited Glenna Goodacre’s Vietnam Women’s Memorial, 1993. At that time I quickly surveyed the sculpture and took a few wide shots and one close-up. This past summer, after my photography class, I re-visited the memorial and I spent much more time at the site. I paid closer attention to the sculpture as a multidimensional work and I noticed more details of the individual figures. My new training encouraged me to zoom in on those details. As I kept looking, I realized that there’s a tenderness in the faces and interaction of these figures that I didn’t recognize when I was just snapping quick shots.
As I’ve been working on my dissertation, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we learn from objects. How does looking at a sculpture change what we know or who we are?
People often use the word “aesthetics” to indicate an appreciation of the visual aspects of a work of art. Many people also consider this appreciation as merely a superficial survey of the outward properties. Yet, aesthetics is more than that. It’s a way of knowing based on sensory input instead of rational thought. I think that this form of knowledge is crucial. To understand works of art, we need to discuss the sensory data of works in relation to historical, social, and cultural contexts.
The Clayton, Jackson, McGhie Memorial, 2003 in Duluth, Minnesota is one of the objects in my study of lynching memorials. I’m now thinking about how the memorial affects individuals and society. It’s easy to argue that the memorial alters the politics of memorial landscape. It’s a large structure commemorating a racially motivated lynching in a region that rarely participated in this form of collective violence. But how does the materiality of the object affect us? Do the inscribed concrete walls tell us something? Does the texture of the bronze figures elicit a particular sensation in viewers?
When I visited Duluth this summer, I took many photographs of the memorial. Several of the shots were close-ups of the walls and figural elements. I also spent a lot of time watching how people used the space. I’m hoping this research will help me uncover alternate ways of knowing.