“To write history is to fill our glass with water from the Thames and claim we have captured the river. This is as true of Jane Smiley as it is of Niall Ferguson, but the author of fiction makes no claim to objective truth or authority and so may be more true to our times.”
Confederacy: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
“Confederate symbols are still celebrated despite the ugly history they symbolize. John Oliver suggests some representations of southern pride that involve less racism and more Stephen Colbert.”
Fascinating article that delves into the role of language and its effect on our understanding of history as well as the present. How is our collective memory shaped by the words we use to describe the past?
“Landis goes on to suggest that we call plantations what they really were—slave labor camps; and drop the use of the term, “the Union.” A common usage in the 19th century to be sure, but now one we only use “the Union” in reference to the Civil War and on the day of the State of the Union address. A better way to speak of the nation during the war, he argues, is to use its name, the United States.”
“As Douglass was already concerned that the victors were losing the war of historical memory to the supposedly vanquished, I am not sure that he would have been surprised that not far from where he stood at the national cemetery—often considered the nation’s most hallowed ground—a Confederate memorial would be built in the early 20th century to the insurgents he felt “struck at the nation’s life.”
“Douglass knew, day-by-day, after the shooting stopped, a history war was playing out. It is clearly not over yet. Words, though they do not stand as marble and bronze memorials in parks and in front of buildings or fly on flagpoles, are perhaps even more powerful and pernicious. The monuments we’ve built with language may, in fact, be even more difficult to tear down.”
Writing history is an act of interpretation based on the past. Creating art about history further separates past events from the final work.
What happens when an artwork tells a story that distorts an actual event? What if that “distorted” artwork communicates a historical “truth”?
Below is a famous image from a civil rights protest in Birmingham. The image tells a powerful story. It turns out that the actual events leading up to the image and the people involved tell a much different story than one we would infer simply by looking at the image.
There is a sculpture, based on the above image, that tells an even more dramatic story pictured below. What does it mean if the artwork, though powerful, does not accurately tell the actual story of the events it is depicting? What if it tells the truth of the brutality of the crackdown on the civil rights movement through inaccurately depicting an event? What does all this say about the power of artwork? The connection between history and art?
Below is a link to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast that discusses these issues and is where I found this story.
I found another blog post discussing these issues in greater detail. Really interesting discussion as well in the comments section.
When the Truth Gets in the Way of the Story You Want to Tell
“Put simply, we don’t like complicated stories. We like our stories cleaned up and sanitized and well tailored for public consumption. We like heroic knights vs. evil villains. We like incorrigible racists and bigots vs. tolerant human rights champions. We like credulous believers vs. rational freethinkers. We like medieval jihadis vs. freedom fighters. We like damned vs. saved. We like lazy welfare sponges vs. hardworking taxpayers. We like sinners and saints and darkness and light and red and blue and black and white. And if reality doesn’t serve up the story that we want? If the truth turns out to be a bit blurrier and more inconvenient than we’d prefer? Well, we’ll just tell the story how we want to.”
“An ignorance of history can prove fatal for any country. A narrow understanding that only reinforces biases and supports political factions is not much better. Americans need to know the entire story of who we have been — the good, the bad and the complex. That is how we perfect our union. That is how we make one nation from many.”
In the US, it’s often taught as a heroic struggle for freedom against the tyrannical British Empire, which was unfairly taxing the colonists without giving them representation in government (though in some high school classes, and certainly at the college level, it’s taught with more nuance).
But how is the American Revolution taught in the UK and in other countries around the world?
Interesting discussion on the difference between “monuments” and “memorials” and how that distinction plays out with the contemporary controversy around the removal of Confederate Civil War statues.
“The debate around these monuments — Should they be destroyed, maintained or removed elsewhere? — has been heated and, I believe, misguided. We should be asking other questions instead: Are these statues really “monuments” by our present standards? Or are they rather “memorials”? Are we misled by the avenue’s name? Do we need to rename the avenue itself as we attempt to remedy our deferred maintenance of history?”