Friday, April 25, 2008

Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves

From my recent posts, the casual reader might conclude that I have not been reading very much lately. Fear not, dear reader: my single-handed conquest of Widener's stacks continues, one moldy page at a time.

Today, in preparation for my upcoming paper on the monumental landscape of the Gettysburg battlefield, I am reading Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America by Kirk Savage (1997).

Savage has one basic point, which he makes persuasively: the post-war memorial landscape of the Civil War reinforced ideal American manhood as white, powerful, and independent by ignoring or subjugating the black body, particularly the bodies of black soldiers, in sculpture. In seven short, readable chapters, Savage discusses representations of the African-American body in antebellum art (both high and popular), monumental representations of slavery and emancipation, and commemoration of the ideal citizen-soldier. Throughout, Savage calls attention to moments of possibility and foreclosure, and explores the complex cultural work done by public monuments.

I thought that this was a great book and would recommend it to anyone who ever marched in a Memorial Day parade, visited a marble monument in Washington, D.C., or took a trip to Gettysburg with the Boy Scouts. Monuments are so familiar to us that we seldom stop to ask what work they are doing. Even though Savage is working within fairly standard frameworks of cultural history, I almost felt like I was reading an exposé: Does the seemingly benign memorial on your town greed have a sinister secret? The shocking truth revealed tonight at 11.

I found Savage's accessible explanations of classical sculptural referents particularly helpful. Since I have very little formal art history training, I would have missed a lot of the connotations conveyed by specific poses and compositions.

In short, I am pleased.

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