- 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...