Category: Bully Pulpit

Dell Upton follows up on the theme of his current book, What Can and Can’t Be Said: Race, Uplift, and Monument Building in the Contemporary South (Yale University Press) by asking a team of individuals critically engaged with public art, memory, and the nation about the recent debates around Confederate monuments and efforts to recognize histories of lynching.

A monument leads an unhappy life. The best it can hope for is to molder quietly under a mantle of pigeon droppings, for when the people or events it celebrates attract a critical eye, its travails begin. Because a monument holds up its subject to memory, even adulation, it is likely to suffer for the failings of the animate.

In the context of the recent Confederate memorial debates, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, directly challenges the heroic narrative of the Confederacy as an honorable struggle and the idea that slavery was a benevolent institution.

Do we have a responsibility to the nation in our teaching and writing on American art? How would this responsibility be enacted and can it be done without seeming to be jingoistic? Does a new understanding of our nation impact our teaching and study of American art? How do you feel about the idea of a national narrative? Have you been challenged to rethink the relationship between American art, the nation, and its citizenry at any time in the last year?

Patriotism can involve loving one’s homeland for the diversity of cultural enclaves it encompasses, while not excluding the rest of humanity or claiming the superiority of our homeland to every other on earth. To be sure, global thinking (in the form of economic globalization or cultural imperialism) has a lot of negative baggage attached to it, but having a cosmopolitan outlook should be encouraged in tandem with patriotic thinking, not seen as its opposite.

Now is a difficult time to be an American. Never have we witnessed such a massive onslaught on—and undoing of—the basic tenets of decency in public life, freedom of protest, freedom of speech, freedom to breathe clean air, freedom to make decisions about our reproductive health, the protection of minority rights, equal justice under the law, and respect for science and empirical grounds of truth. Rarely have we seen the door slammed shut with such force against ideals of international cooperation and respect.