Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 15, 2010
Kirk Savage Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. 408 pp.; 126 b/w ills. Cloth $34.95 (9780520256545)
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In 1998, Kirk Savage‘s first book, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press), was awarded the John Hope Franklin Prize for the best book in American Studies. His second book, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C, the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape, should have been a finalist for this year’s general non-fiction Pulitzer Prize, but perhaps it will receive another American Studies award or an art-history honor. Dell Upton, UCLA’s highly respected professor of architectural history, praises this book on its dust jacket as “at once an art history of monuments and a landscape history of political theater.” To be sure, Upton, too, claims the new book is “a worthy successor to Savage’s classic Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves.”

Monument Wars has a page on www.rorotoko.com, an intellectuals’ online venue that “engages the ideas and elaborations serious books are made of.” The page is written by Savage himself, though identified as an “interview,” which is how rorotoko,com sets up all author’s accounts: a book’s cover accompanied by the author’s photograph and four author-written accounts sub-headed “in a nutshell,” “a wide angle,” “close-up,” and “lastly.” In his narrative, Savage explains that the “great axis of public space” known as the National Mall should be analyzed in its history—as are other sites elsewhere in DC and, for that matter, other locations in the United States—from the nineteenth-century preference for decentralized landscape or “ground,” to the later twentieth-century ideal of “space of experience,” when inclinations tended to drift away from “hero” statues and more toward “memorial” and “commemoration.” Toward a memorial and commemoration of what, exactly?

A former freelance newspaper writer before he began his art-historical academic career, Savage currently writes for the Washington Post and other online and printed news sources on a number of topics, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and its recent calamity in 2009, when one of the security guards was slain by an elderly anti-Semitic gunman. And the very first sentence of Monument Wars seems like a journalist report, quoting as a single sentence, with no introduction, a North Carolina congressman’s dismissal of a proposed memorial to George Washington: “Since the invention of types [printing], monuments are good for nothing.” The date, the second sentence relays, was 1800 (1).

Savage’s inquiry into American culture and/or its relationship to memorials covers a wide swath of history. In this case, at any rate, the quotation can be found where one would expect it, i.e., Annals of Congress archives, though it doubtless showed up in newspapers as well. In comparison, the second-to-last citation in the book refers the reader to a May 2008 New York Times article by Shaila Dewan entitled “Larger Than Life, More to Fight Over,” about the still-unsettled attempt to erect a memorial commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. The book’s last footnote cites, incidentally, two enrichments Savage recommends for his own assertion: “no more reason to think that the [memorial] landscape system of today will meet the needs of the future” by “dramatic [update]” of what took place in the nineteenth century (311). In addition to Judy Scott Feldman’s 2008 essay, “Turning Point: The Problematics of Building on the Mall Today” (in The National Mall: Rethinking Washington’s Monumental Core, ed. Nathan Glazer and Cynthia R. Field, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, 135–158.), Savage encourages readers to go to “one of the more interesting and well-developed” suggestions for how the Mall might be altered in this century found on the website, National Coalition to Save Our Mall’s [National Mall] Third Century Initiative (www.nationalmall.net) (355). There one can watch a video entitled “The future of the National Mall,” address predictive augmentations, or become more factual on how a commission might be founded to grapple with everything from management to coming face to face with the Potomac River.

While a documented history like Memorial Wars certainly is itself archival, Savage’s research spans politics, nationalism, democracy’s developments and manifestations, as well as the origin, role, style, subject matter, aesthetics, specific Washington monuments, and, decisively, the Washington Mall itself. Such scope and erudition does not make the text inaccessible. Indeed the art historian who immediately comes to mind as Savage’s paragon of sensitive and sensory yet non-pedantic writing style, of philosophical yet straightforward appreciation of art, whatever the field, is Leo Steinberg.

Savage does not discuss individual monuments in order to highlight aesthetic essences, however learned and intense his descriptions. In chapter 1, “A Monument to a Deceased Project,” the subject is Washington, DC, itself and the judgment is in Charles Dickens’s own words. Touring portions of the United States in 1842, Dickens scorned the nation’s capital as an unsuccessful memorial idea “with,” indeed, “not even a legible inscription to record its departed greatness” (26). Dickens was more or less correct in his report, but the detailed and important contributions of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, of course, are presented with clarity and orderliness by Savage. With the inclusion of current scholarship regarding L’Enfant’s urban design, accomplishment, divergence, and arguments concerning his assessment then and now, Savage supplies subject, history, and his own evaluation of the points made by the “multidimensional talent” of L’Enfant. Among L’Enfant’s design was a “President’s House,” leading Savage to analyze the circumstances surrounding what might constitute a memorial to George Washington and, it was hoped by many, his remains. (The family said, “nothing doing,” or an early nineteenth-century declination to that effect.) The chapter goes on into the nineteenth century, touching on the 1841 installation of Horatio Greenough’s statue of the first president in the Capitol rotunda, which in less than two years was set outside on the grounds and then moved inside to some other government structures elsewhere. Giovanni C. Micali’s Tripoli Memorial (1808, installed on Capital ground 1831, moved to Annapolis, Maryland, in 1860) was the first freestanding and private monument, in this book pictured though barely discussed. Instead, Memorial Wars introduces what Savage calls in a sub-section title “The Beginning of the Monumental Core” (54), that is, federal architect Robert Mills’s design of an obelisk to George Washington, to be paid, it was hoped, by public donations. Mills’s ideal for an attached pantheon never made it, but the obelisk began and the National Mall was to commence.

The third chapter, entitled “The Mechanic Monster,” is the most captivating in terms of history and art history. How did the Washington Monument obtain a design and construction, what were the circumstances and nature of this monument’s deliberation, and, among the illustrations and accounts of the obelisk already well known by most, how did it appear as a line drawing of “Purity’s Monument” alongside an announcement that certified, in capital letters, “the weight of scientific evidence favors the use of such beverages as Heurich’s Beers”? As Savage recognizes, “The real completion [‘finish’] of the monument would come when the landscape around it was cleared and transformed, creating a new, more abstract space that would remold the nation’s center in the monument’s image” (144). Thus, in chapter 4, “Inventing Public Space,” and chapter 5, “The Monument Transformed,” the inconsistencies, even, some might suspect, the occasional absurdities of the political crises and debates and resolutions countered the eventually resplendent National Mall. Insightful and stimulating, rich and lucid, the text throughout the book represents a tribute to its subject and disclosures.

The book’s negative feature, some readers might find, is the image reproduction quality, which entails some unevenness. Illustrations from the Library of Congress, particularly the Geographic and Map Division and the Prints and Photographs Division, are instructive, and a very large number of photographs by the author himself are also revelatory. Others, especially from older magazines or archives, are not very clear, and, on occasion, it is not evident why an illustration is chosen but barely touched upon in the text. With 127 reproductions in a 7” x 10” book, however, the University of California Press has produced yet another of its admirable publications.

In the final chapter, Savage’s “modest proposal” on Krzysztof Wodiczko’s 1988 Hirshhorn Projection as an inception or example of ephemeral monuments broadens the analysis to include “temporary installations, interventions, and reinterpretations throughout the [United States]” (312). What Savage calls monument possibilities, which he describes as “more of an open conversation” than sensibilities of “immutable national essence” (ibid.), was written before the present decline/collapse of congressional bipartisanship. Indeed he proposes that the inauguration of “an African American president” (no name listed) in January, 2009, “suggests how many Americans want to believe that a new possibility has arrived” (313). Although he chooses the compound “want to believe” as opposed to the verb “believe,” Savage’s observation takes us to his concluding, recapitulative, and admirable last sentence. He closes his history of Washington’s monuments and his public space analysis by resolving Abraham’s Lincoln “great phrase,” asserting that we “may find new ‘chords of memory’ . . . that bind us to others and create the platforms of sympathy and understanding we so urgently need” (ibid.).

Barbara Groseclose
Professor, Department of History of Art, Ohio State University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.