SublimAE seminar

Why we need more monuments : A case for the ‘reuse strategy’

Informations pratiques
19 juin 2023

ENS, Pavillon jardin, confrence room, 29 rue d'Ulm, 75005 Paris


The discussion surrounding what to do with especially ‘tainted’ monuments—to figures such as Confederate generals, colonialist figures like Cecil Rhodes, or even more generally esteemed figures who nonetheless have checkered human rights histories such as the slave-owning George Washington, the U.S.-expansionist Abraham Lincoln, and the white-paternalizing Theodore Roosevelt—tends to be framed as a choice between removal or preservation. That said, other options in between these stark positions are sometimes floated. There was a proposal in Charlottesville, VA to take the equestrian sculpture of Robert E. Lee off of its pedestal, and to encase it in Lucite bearing testimonials from the enslaved people he owned. This strategy was termed “transfigure in place.” It was not ultimately adopted and the statue has now been removed. 

Other strategies such as “retain and explain” or the use of “counter-monuments” have also been suggested and tried. And some have suggested the creation of an alternative statue to a figure, e.g. to replace the one by James Earle Fraser to Teddy Roosevelt outside of the American Museum of Natural History in NYC (Walker 2018).

In this paper I argue that the removal of many tainted monuments simply ‘white washes’ the public space and constitutes a pyrrhic victory for activists who seek removal. Instead, I seek to defend a strategy I term the “reuse strategy” for at least some of these tainted monuments. The idea is to try to preserve the some crucial but neglected dimensions of value of even some tainted monuments—aesthetic, artistic, historical, age and ‘sense of place’ value—by reusing them to foster a monumental dialogue in the public space. 

An example of how this has been done implicitly and I believe successfully is the Emancipation Monument to Abraham Lincoln (1876) in Lincoln Park, Washington D.C. In 1974, this was turned 180 degrees to face a new monument erected on the other end of a grassy strip to one of the most important Black educators and civil & women’s rights leaders, Mary McLeod Bethune. With the addition of the Bethune monument, the Emancipation Monument is reused and repurposed to create a rich, monumental conversation. I shall argue, utilizing the case of the Theodore Roosevelt monument that was recently removed from the American Museum of Natural History steps, that this architectural reuse strategy is one that we have good reason to embrace in such cases in order to preserve especially historical and sense of place values, while fostering a monumental dialogue that keeps up with contemporary moral sensibilities and concerns. 

SublimAE (the Sublime and Aesthetic Experiences) seminar, in connection with SublimAE ANR project, will focus on the interdisciplinary study of Aesthetic Experiences with an eye to the sublime by bringing together philosophy, psychology, and social sciences. We will explore, on the one hand, how the experience of the sublime connects to other similar or contrast experiences (the beautiful, terrible beauty, awe, wonder, the uncanny, …), and, on the other hand, the impact these experiences, and more specifically aesthetic ones, have on our representation of the self. The seminar will feature presentations by members of the project, as well as by invited speakers.

Venue : Institut Jean Nicod meeting room

Contact : Margherita ArcangeliJérôme Dokic

For the full programme click here.