Authenticity, Memory, and Materiality: Disgraced Memorials and Issues of Permanence
What role does authenticity play in the judgment, value, and preservation of visual and material culture? Recent years have seen an uptick in the vandalism and the removal of “disgraced” memorials in the United States, most notably statues and other kinds of public art that some Americans find offensive, oppressive, and inappropriate. These include memorials, murals, and fountains dedicated to the Confederate States of America, Christopher Columbus, Father Junipero Serra, and western frontiersmen. Arguments for retaining and preserving these and other memorials are typically based on claims about their authenticity.
Authenticity in art, the philosopher Denis Dutton explained, rests on assumptions that the object or image under consideration is “real,” “genuine,” and “true,” that it is a sign of undisputed credibility and legitimacy, a paradigm of irreplaceability. Whenever we use the term, however, Dutton advised us to first ask: “Authentic as opposed to what?”1 Authenticity, in other words, is a dynamic concept dependent on multiple cultural, social, economic, and political factors. Authenticity is neither innate nor permanent. Images and objects express and embody the values, beliefs, and norms of their makers and their audiences—and all these ideals are acquired and subject to change.
Notwithstanding the mutability of authenticity, many Americans claim that challenging or removing certain memorials amounts to violating or destroying their inherent legitimacy. In 2018, a year after the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville erupted in violence and murder, an NBC poll reported that over 61 percent of southerners “oppose removing Confederate monuments and statues from public spaces.” That number is “even higher in some Deep South states, with 65 percent of Alabamians and Mississippians opposing removal.”2 In fact, southern fiscal support for Confederate monuments and sites has steadily escalated: over the past decade, Alabama’s Confederate Memorial Park, in Chilton County, has been allocated more than $5.6 million [End Page 135] in state funding. Since 2010, Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library in Biloxi, Mississippi, has received more than $21 million in federal and state funding.3
No matter how shameful or disgraced, no matter the violence they solicit and produce in their local communities, those who want to retain and preserve Confederate memorials and sites insist on their authenticity, a concept of truthfulness and validity that they attach to their original location and installation. For their supporters, monuments to the Confederacy are viewed as the “real thing,” as authenticating spatial and experiential links to the past. They value them as “teaching tools,” as “great objects for teaching and learning about the South’s dark, complex and troubled past.” By removing them, they argue, “we would be denying ourselves a great opportunity to learn about the South’s past.”4 Framing them as funereal tributes to southern soldiers who died in the Civil War, supporters discount the fact that the vast majority of Confederate memorials originated during Jim Crow, that many more were built during the civil rights era, and that dozens of monuments to the Confederacy have been erected in the past twenty years in states from North Carolina to Arizona. Whether or not they pay tribute to the Confederacy’s dead, all of them were and are intended as intimidating symbols of white supremacy.
Understandings of the presumptive authenticity of Confederate memorials rest on the idea that legitimate visual and material cultures have unique origins, and that they are only or mainly genuine in the places and spaces where they were originally dedicated and installed. Defenders of Confederate memorials, for example, view them as authenticating “heirlooms” of southern history. Their authenticity is deemed far more significant than how they were originally received by different American audiences, or how they are contested today. Their credibility, and irreplaceability, rests on assumptions of their historical validity in the past, their physical occupation in the present, and the overarching assumption that all Americans share, or should share, the same understandings of history. It further stems from assumptions that American history, and history in general, is fixed and permanent: an unchanged narrative of facts and truth.
In their 2017 “American Values” survey, however, researchers with the Public Religion Research Institute found 58 percent of Americans believe that Confederate monuments are “symbols of Southern pride” and 30 percent say they are “symbols of racism.”5 Authenticity is a construct, a series of value judgments made by “historically specific actors in politically specific contexts.”6 Confederate monuments, Andre Perry remarks, “are a myopic aggrandizement of a warped historical narrative—a storyline that rationalizes past and present [End Page 136] oppression.” He adds, “It’s past time we made room in public spaces for people who actually deserve our respect. The removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces isn’t about erasing history, it’s about honoring the people who make it.”7
Authenticity is a project of “distinction, prestige, domination, and profit” remarks the Romanian sociologist Magdalena Craciun in Material Culture and Authenticity: Fake Branded Fashion in Europe. An ethnography of “engagements with fake branded garments” such as Armani, Gucci, Versace, Calvin Klein, and Coach bags, wallets, T-shirts, and jeans, Craciun’s study examines how authenticity is formed around “inauthentic” enterprises—like making, selling, and buying inauthentic or fake brands. Reflecting on consumer patterns in postsocialist Romania and the counterfeit cultures of Istanbul workshops, Craciun considers how the self-conscious consumption of inauthentic, fraudulent, or “legally fake” goods mediates identity formation.8
The authenticity of many cultural objects, such as paintings in art museums, is negotiated in the marketplace: in auction houses and galleries, for example. Objects that are deemed more authentic typically command more value, higher prices, and prestigious display (pride of place). Craciun discusses how “inauthentic” objects like fake Coach bags are valued by their makers and buyers because of their specific materiality—their pattern and cut, for example, or their shininess—and their utility. These qualities, she argues, are as important or more important than the brands they copy. Makers and consumers alike “know” how markets determine values and tastes, but they also “know” that values and taste are inherently constructed. The buyer also, actually, needs a bag, not a brand.
Much visual and material culture scholarship focuses on identifying “authentic” images and objects, on determining their origins, authorship, and provenance in order to validate their market value. Craciun’s study rejects objectivist understandings of authenticity as “inherent in materiality.” She recognizes instead that authenticity is a social, cultural, political, and economic “quality” that “varies according to who is observing and engaging with particular objects and in what circumstances.”9 She further speculates on why and how issues of authenticity are such an obsession among anxious modern publics.
Authenticity and experiences with the authentic are important because we believe they strongly substantiate personal and social relationships, identities, histories, and memories. We believe that our articulation and understanding of an “authentic self” is the result of having, or owning, authentic things—“real” things or “genuine” things—and in accruing authentic experiences. So [End Page 137] we collect unique works of art, or first edition books, or baseballs autographed by sports legends. We visit places and spaces where “real” history happened, including those in the spectrum of “dark tourism” that focus on the deaths of others: Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, where 51,000 Americans died in battle; the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York, where a deadly fire killed 146 garment workers; and the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, which looks down on the street where President John F. Kennedy was shot.10 We build our identities around these authenticating things and experiences: they help us construct our sense of self. Our pursuit of them suggests that we understand how our articulation of an authentic self is temporal, in flux, and ever changing: a process motivated by social, political, and economic dynamics. As the anthropologists Eric Gable and Richard Handler discovered in their study of tourism and American identity formation at Colonial Williamsburg, authenticity is a highly elusive and ultimately untenable “foundational value.”11
Those who question the presumptive authenticity of disgraced memorials, and those who vandalize, deface, and destroy them, understand this. Their rationale for destroying and removing Confederate memorials and monuments, for example, stems from a recognition of their originating premise of white supremacy and their enduring disenfranchisement of people of color. They recognize, further, that memorials to the Confederacy celebrate national traitors and Civil War losers. And they recognize how Confederate memorials perpetuate white privilege, racism, and violence. We saw this in Charlottesville in August 2017, where the “Unite the Right” rally was specifically held in order to protect and preserve two Confederate memorials, an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee and another of Stonewall Jackson, that the Charlottesville City Council had voted to remove from two local parks. Storming the city with burning torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and alt-right protesters orchestrated a lethal rally demanding the permanence of Confederate memorials.
Issues of permanence are at the core of the authenticity arguments surrounding disgraced memorials. Those who advocate for their removal argue that they do not represent the ideals held today by local, regional, and/or national publics: they are inauthentic. Whatever their originating intentions, they are “out of sync” with present-day values in America. As such, they challenge assumptions of their protection and permanence, or the ways in which their authenticity, and public legitimacy, is assured because they are seemingly fixed in the public landscape. Protesters see removal as an affirmation of the nation’s core beliefs in racial equity: Americans should not have to endure the [End Page 138] presence and authority of memorials whose touted “authenticity” sustains racist claims. “We can either accept that monuments to Robert E. Lee are an affront to our nation’s highest values,” writes Eric Levitz, “or that those neo-Nazis in Charlottesville were right about what those values truly are.”12
In the end, authenticity is too calculating and too self-defeating to be an efficacious concept in American cultural studies. It is too often attached, remarks the cultural anthropologist Rajko Muršič, to “essentializing and naturalizing notions that support regimes of exclusion and latent violence.”13 In America today, it is too often attached to legitimizing disgraced memorials and the abhorrent ideologies they represent.
Erika Doss is professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her books include Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism (University of Chicago Press, 1991), Spirit Poles and Flying Pigs: Public Art and Cultural Democracy in American Communities (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), Looking at Life Magazine (editor, Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials (Amsterdam University Press, 2008), Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (2010), and American Art of the 20th–21st Centuries (University of Chicago Press, 2017).
1. Denis Dutton, “Authenticity in Art,” in The Oxford Handbooks of Aesthetics, ed. Jerrold Levinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
2. Alex Seitz-Wald, “NBC News Poll,” NBCNews.com, April 12, 2018, www.nbcnews.com/politics/elections/nbc-news-poll-south-once-conservative-bastion-changing-n864441.
3. Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler, “The Costs of the Confederacy,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 2018, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/costs-confederacy-special-report-180970731/.
4. University of North Carolina Wilmington history professor Chris Fonvielle, quoted in Tim Buckland, “UNCW Professor: Confederate Monuments Should Remain as Teaching Tools,” Wilmington StarNews, September 14, 2017, www.starnewsonline.com/news/20170914/uncw-professor-confederate-monuments-should-remain-as-teaching-tools.
5. Alex Vandermaas-Peeler, Daniel Cox, Molly Fisch-Friedman, and Robert P. Jones, “One Nation, Divided, under Trump: Findings from the 2017 American Values Survey,” PRRI, December 5, 2017, www.prri.org/research/american-values-survey-2017/.
6. Richard Handler, “Debating Authenticity,” American Anthropologist 116.1 (2014): 205.
7. Andre M. Perry, “Removing Racist Monuments Is about Making History, Not Erasing It,” Brookings, November 9, 2017), www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2017/11/09/removing-racist-monuments-is-about-making-history-not-erasing-it/.
8. Magdalena Craciun, Material Culture and Authenticity: Fake Branded Fashion in Europe (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 10, 12.
9. Craciun, 12.
10. Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 93–98.
11. Eric Gable and Richard Handler, “After Authenticity at an American Heritage Site,” American Anthropologist 98.3 (1996): 569.
12. Eric Levitz, “Confederate Monuments Were Built to Change History, Not Preserve It,” New York Magazine, August 17, 2017, nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/08/confederate-monuments-were-built-to-change-history.html.
13. Rajko Muršič, “Deceptive Tentacles of the Authenticating Mind: On Authenticity and Some Other Notions That Are Good for Absolutely Nothing,” in Debating Authenticity: Concepts of Modernity in Anthropological Perspective, ed. Thomas Fillitz and A. Jamie Saris (New York: Berghahn, 2012), 58.