Constructions of Memory: On Monuments Old and New
Fall 1999Buy Now
“Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument.” Thus begins The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi’s final meditation on the Nazi death camps, written four decades after his liberation from Auschwitz. “Marvelous but fallacious”—we might well say the same about those artifacts, those products of human memory, built and projected, by which we endeavor to remember what we fear to forget. The essays that make up the feature section of this issue explore the volatile and provocative role that monuments and memorials have played in the politics and culture of this century. Monuments have long been the subject of intellectual debate and artistic anguish; in recent decades both the debate and the anguish have intensified. Most of the essayists here acknowledge what seems an unassailable assumption of current thinking: that the cataclysmic events of this century—the World Wars, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocaust and the Gulag—have challenged the cultural value and artistic legitimacy of monuments and have thus proven humbling to those who try to create memorializing works of art. So too has a closely connected phenomenon: the widespread disillusionment with many of the ideas and ideals that have traditionally undergirded the creation of memorials—gods and saints, national destiny and martial glory, the march of progress and the promise of technology. In this debunking age, a monument is just as likely to be a colossal melting popsicle or gigantic window wiper as a bronze likeness of the commander of the latest localized war, a war that probably provoked more protest than patriotism. And yet to read in the growing literature on monuments and memorials is to become impressed by a fundamental contradiction. No matter that we live in a doubting and secular age, no matter that most patriotism is dismissed as naïve or outdated, or that postmodern theory has labored to raise doubts as to whether anything can be commemorated in good faith—the need to remember and honor important and terrible events, and exceptional men and women, remains undiminished.
— Nancy Levinson (excerpted from the introduction)