COMMENTARY: Zimmerli art exhibit could not be more timely
A collaborative art exhibition has recently been installed in the Focus Gallery at the Zimmerli Art Museum (the small room adjacent PaparazZi Cafe), on heritage and memory in the American South. A bundle of Mason Gross visual art students, led by Daonne Huff and Kara Walker, trekked to Atlanta, Georgia, where they experienced the following things: Ebenezer Baptist Church (former church of Martin Luther King Jr.), remnants of the Klan, Stone Mountain, and, of course, Piggly Wiggly. The result of their travels is the Atlanta Ladies Memorial Association — an intimately curated, archival exhibition, frank in presentation, at once jarring and/or moving, depending on who you are.
This show couldn't be more timely to our cultural moment. Last Monday, the city of New Orleans implemented long-approved plans to relocate four prominent Confederate-era monuments from public space. Rural Louisianans' uproariously negative reaction evidences a lingering conflict within our culture. If you don't find this problematic, consider the sculpture removed on Monday: Colloquially known as the Liberty Monument, it is an obelisk commemorating a militant uprising against the state government after the election of an African-American lieutenant governor in 1876. The rogue militia was crushed by police forces and, in true rebel fashion, commissioned themselves a monumental participation trophy. An inscription on the monument's old plaque unambiguously reads, "recognized white supremacy in the South ... " That is an exact quote, and regional conservatives, voters and legislators alike, were overwhelmingly outraged that the city would dare to "destroy history," as the charge goes, despite the care the monument received during transportation.
This is the type of culture the Mason Gross group, who coined themselves Memory, Memorials, and Monuments, saturated themselves in before returning to Rutgers in March. Their show includes many provocative installations, such as Martin Luther King's portrait juxtaposed to a Klansman hood. Discarded trash is laid beneath a glass display like a museum might present ancient treasures. The most common items are crayon rubbings, most of which wax romantic on the heroism of the Confederacy. In all, the exhibition illustrates what is known as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, and meditates on the South's ongoing attempt to deal with its deeply checkered history.
We should care about the Lost Cause culture because of the simple fact that its subscribers overlap directly with the Trump voter base. Many have suggested that the Democrats' loss in the 2016 presidential election was due to the party's inability to connect with working-class white voters, despite every other odd stacked in their favor. That is — not every Trump voter comes from Lost Cause culture, but if you see a truck blazing down the street, not ironically flying the stars and stripes beside the stars and bars, and some sort of sticker reading "Heritage, not Hate," nine times out of 10 you've got yourself a Trumper.
What makes this culture so aggressively outspoken is its awareness of its own finality. This is trending alongside Fox News' diminishing audience and the threat of a progressive generation rapidly approaching voting-age. Like a cornered animal, soon to be slain, the Trump demographic is so aggressive because they are fighting for their very identities. This imminent passing places Lost Cause relics in an eerie light. What to do with immovable testimonies to a troublingly complicated past, such as the relieved equestrian memorial to Confederate heroes on Stone Mountain? This gigantic granite deposit, emblazoned with white supremacy, brings to mind the lack of granite present on slave graves. The mountain itself reminds of a time where race determined who deserved to be remembered.
There is a difference between history and memory. The Romans are history — they are so far removed from our experience as to be effectively historicized. No one is in the street chanting, "Dacian lives matter!" But slavery, the Confederacy, Jim Crow — all of these have yet to be forgotten. New Orleans is trying to historicize its past, and the Atlanta Ladies Memorial Association has effectively crystalized, in one exhibition, the conflicted Southern heritage. See the show before it, too, passes. Make sure to bring your eyes and ears, and contemplate our history and the vast disconnectedness of what it means to identify as an American in this moment and how we can do our part in molding that identity moving forward. The show ends in July.
Dillon Raborn is an MA student of Art History at Rutgers.
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