Subverting the Historical Narrative: The Future of the Counter-Monument

By Ingrid Schreiber

‘Honor history.’ Those were the words graffitied beside a toppled Madre Luz – or “Mother Light” – in Wyman Park Dell, Baltimore. Only a few days earlier, Pablo Machioli’s popular sculpture – which depicts a pregnant black woman, fist raised defiantly in the air – had been hoisted by protestors onto an empty pedestal: the triumphant replacement for an ousted Confederate statue. Under cover of darkness, however, Madre Luz soon suffered the same fate as her predecessor, knocked over by an anonymous counter-protestor. Her initial unveiling – some two years earlier, as a challenge to the Confederate statue – had also been met with anger and spray paint. This brief and precarious career speaks to the sculpture’s immense symbolism in a hotly contested historical narrative. It also opens up questions about the status of such “counter-monuments” in our memory culture.

The term “counter-monument” was coined by Holocaust scholar James E. Young to describe monuments deviating from the aims and principles of normative commemoration. Rather than honoring and glorifying history, counter-monuments encourage reflection and thoughtful remembrance. They are an artistic medium laden with symbolic power; they embody a scepticism toward lofty plinths, busts and bronzes.

This scepticism is becoming more concrete. In the context of global protest against problematic historical legacies, we are witnessing a wave of counter-monuments with a more specific bent – protest art, erected to directly challenge the view of history expressed by existing monuments and cityscapes. Concurrent to this has been a wave of support from governments, policy-makers and heritage institutions – a desire to defend these emergent marginal narratives, and to document and commemorate the historical moment that’s unfolding.

But the question soon becomes just how such desire should translate to meaningful action. How can authorities best lend their support to counter-monuments and protest art? What are the dangers of such intervention? Above all, how can the counter-monument receive institutional backing without compromising its very raison d’être – its capacity to subvert mainstream interpretations of the past and present?

The case for establishment support

Addressing such concerns is imperative given the substantial benefits of establishment intervention. For one thing, museums and galleries offer the means to preserve what would otherwise be lost to history. The often ephemeral nature of counter-monuments renders them vulnerable to erasure. Some, like Madre Luz, are self-standing sculptures, but many are merely additions: paint, placards, lighting, decoration – anything which alters the interpretation of existing monuments. For those artworks without official approval, this can make the distinction between counter-monument and vandalism markedly subjective in a manner which threatens the former’s longevity.

Take Gregory Ragland’s Serve and Protect (2013), which sits outside the Public Safety Building in Salt Lake City, Utah. The sculpture depicts large hands opening up skywards – sign language suggestive of care, humility and service. In mid-2020, after the death of George Floyd and the intensification of Black Lives Matter activism, the sculpture was covered with red paint; menacing and ominous, it became an emblem of police brutality, symbolic of collective guilt. The paint was quickly washed off by authorities, the moment over and message forgotten.

The conflict over Madre Luz shows that even the more tangible and autonomous of counter-monuments are prone to such transience. This stems from their tendency to provoke antagonism. Often uncomfortable, even jarring, counter-monuments seek to render memory culture an ongoing conversation, not let it linger unchallenged. By posing a counter-narrative, they invite infinite counter-narratives; they rip open the fabric of history, drawing attention to the inexhaustible subjectivity of interpretation. Precisely because of this, they are susceptible to backlash – including damage or destruction.

Establishment support can protect counter-monuments from such dangers, and ensure their survival as relics of a particular historical moment. Here the distinction between commissioned and noncommissioned work, between the official and the subversive, is crucial. Faring far better than Madre Luz, for instance, is Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War (2019). Wiley’s sculpture, which depicts a young African American modelled on a statue of Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart, was created to oppose the ongoing glorification of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. Rather than being put up independently as an act of vandalism or spontaneous protest, the work was the most expensive piece ever commissioned by the Virginia Fine Arts Museum. Firmly embedded in high culture, Wiley’s counter-monument has achieved permanence and protection. 

On the one hand, that heritage institutions wish to endorse counter-monuments – or even sponsor and commission them – is evidence that the narrative is changing. It is deeply encouraging that governments, museums and galleries are endeavouring to recognise activism as historically significant and to give activists a meaningful platform. Such efforts serve to improve diversity in exhibition space and financially empower artists from marginalised communities. They also legitimise reinterpretations of historical legacies, and protect for posterity a genre of art which is inherently vulnerable – a protection Madre Luz never enjoyed.

Problems of intervention

Yet, on the other hand, it is worth reflecting upon how far protest art and counter-monuments are compatible with institutionalisation. Can commissioned artwork really capture the energy of organic social movements? And is something lost when activism becomes an attraction to be consumed and admired by visitors? When spontaneous pieces – such as BLM panel and plywood murals – are acquired by museums and relocated from their original setting? Tokenism is one concern. Another is if entrance fees are charged, or the artwork later auctioned by the exhibition space; both invite a sense of progressive politics being manipulated for profit. And for counter-monuments – whether standalone or artistic inventions – any relocation is particularly problematic since they lose the subversive power of their contextual meaning.

Perhaps the greatest problem is that traditional exhibition spaces are not neutral ground: they themselves have a contested history. In the nineteenth century, museums emerged intertwined with burgeoning ideas about nationhood and national identity; they were originally founded to be the conservative gatekeepers of national narratives, the arbiters of legitimacy and legacy. Though the social function of museums has arguably since evolved, their complicity in many of the issues inspiring protest – colonialism, imperialism and dispossession – is undeniable. In fact, one consequence of recent advocacy has been renewed attention to the repatriation debate; museums across the world have been revisiting their policies to facilitate the return of foreign artefacts. 

Neither are art galleries immune to these same mechanisms of power and appropriation. In August 2020, for example, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art was forced to cancel the upcoming “Collective Actions: Artistic Interventions in a Time of Change” after several artists alleged that their work had been used without permission or appropriate remuneration. The exhibition had sought to showcase protest art from the BLM movement but faced criticism for co-opting and diluting its progressive narrative. So what future awaits the humble counter-monument? How can authorities and heritage institutions show their support for political activism without undermining it? Or do their efforts to endorse counter-monuments herald the end of activism proper – when reformist energies are relegated to a stagnant moment of the past, not continually enacted as an ongoing exercise of self-reflection? This translation process – from the radical to the institutional, idealism to realpolitik – seems doomed to be an imperfect compromise. But such questions will only grow more pertinent as more and more spaces seek to respond to the momentous advocacy of the last year.