What is the significance of monuments and or memorials to the general public and to the artist who make them?


The Communards’ Wall (Mur des Fédérés) Père Lachaise cemetery

What is the significance of monuments and or memorials to the general public and to the artist who make them? Monuments can be seen to withstand the test of time, created by ancient civilizations that out live their creators and to tell of what was important to their culture that needed to be memorialized. In present day civilization we have artisans who are commissioned to embody a range of purposes or meanings but with their own freedom to create such a monument or memorial for the general public to receive. This leaves many questions unanswered. Who or what gets memorialized? Does the location have any influence on the longevity or meaning of the monument or memorial? Why should the artist take into consideration the general public’s opinion or personal point of view? Why in society do we build such things? No one seems to question a monument or memorial. They may have a critical opinion based on the aesthetics of one or may be upset that it ruins a particular view of the surrounding landscape—but why must the human race build such things that may have no actual function or purpose? Is it only a monument or memorial if the artist or maker says it is? What if no one actually sees it, does it still function as such? My aim of this paper is to find the fundamental answers on why monuments or memorials exist through the intention of the artist, by the way the public has received them and to broaden the scope of the general definitions of what a monument or memorial can actually consist of.

Ron Cauthern, New Monument for Nashville, 2015
Ron Cauthern, New Monument for Nashville, 2015


The intention of the artist can be overlooked when his or her work is on public display; while the viewer’s make their own assumptions about the purpose of the artist. When it comes to making monuments or memorials, it seems that a purpose or reason must be concluded first before the creative process happens. An event must have taken place that holds enough ground for a monument or memorial to be made. But what if the artist has complete freedom to create a monument or memorial of their choosing, must they take into account the public’s reaction or can they base it solely on their own accord? In the series on monuments and memorials titled “Life After Death and Beyond”, death row inmates were allowed to address the death penalty either directly or abstractly through its organizers, Robin Paris and Tom Williams. Designing a monument or memorial about being on death row means the inmates tell their own personal stories of life inside and outside of prison. The works being exhibited would show the public that the artists themselves are more than just someone condemned to die. Paris and Williams felt that it is important to get their voices into the world to contrast the solidarity of prison (Crum, 2015). The fact that these monuments would be made by inmates would stir up some problems due to the fact that they are criminals on death row. But must we question the artist’s integrity as a person when looking at their work or the integrity of the work itself? In April of 2015, an illegally installed statue of Edward Snowden, titled Prison Ship Marty’s Monument 2.0, was erected in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, New York City, showcasing the American whistle blower who was charged with federal crimes for leaking classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA). The artist’s intentions seem to have been prompted by the nation’s reaction and dismay towards Snowden directed through the media (Greenwald, 2014). Snowden was seen as somewhat of a hero by those who were anti-government by bringing NSA’s fourth amendment violating surveillance program to the public’s attention. The monument only lasted a day and was taken down by New York City park officials, only to be followed by a hologram of Edward Snowden by the same artist after it was removed. The media seemed to have portrayed Snowden as a villain that opposed all of USA’s moral values, almost deeming him un-American (Macmillan, 2014). The artist’s here wanted to fight against the corrupt media corporations that blindly tell the American public what they should think. By erecting the monument and having it taken down so quickly and with the media coverage it received, it exposed the other side of the Snowden incident. The artist’s wanted to create a heroic image of Snowden, only to be defeated and removed by city officials, then to be resurrected in the form of a hologram.

Jeff Greenspan, Prison Ship Martyrs Monument 2.0 (The Edward Snowden Bust)
Prison Ship Martyrs Monument 2.0 (The Edward Snowden Bust)

The bust as a medium has a long tradition in the cannon of art history as only the high end of society and officials could receive such an honor, whereas the artist’s wanted to propel the significance of the individual in creating a bust. It seems that if the artist has his or her own free will in constructing a monument or memorial, the outcome is one of enlightening and expanding the public’s preconceived notion of the content of the monument or memorial. The artist gives another opinion of the subject that the general public seems to disregard. Taking into account the history of monuments and memorials and why they were constructed, it only makes sense that the artist chooses his or her message in the form of one that gets across the impact of such a strong opinion that the artist has.

Satanic Temple (2015) Baphomet
Satanic Temple (2015) Baphomet

It seems that public opinion had no interest in the Edward Snowden statue besides the media coverage it produced since it was removed as fast as it was set up. But what of monuments and memorials that do not get removed but have caused unfavourable opinions, with the general public having to interact with such a thing throughout their daily lives? Once the artist creates an object and leaves it for the public’s observation, it now becomes what others see of it. In July of 2015, a bronze monument of Baphomet, a goat headed wraith, which is now the contemporary figure of Satanism was unveiled in Detroit. Much public outrage soon followed with local churches holding mass to speak out against the monument. The argument that the Satanic Temple held to was referencing another religious monument, a large marble slab engraved with the Ten Commandments, located at the Oklahoma state capital (Jenkins, 2015). The artist in either case is never mentioned, only the public’s reaction to the monuments. It is not the monument as work of art that is in question, it is the message that it conveys to the public. We are conditioned to see certain symbols, based solely on humans and their actions, and use the symbol as a visual indicator to identify with a certain way of thinking and acting. Take the swastika for example; a symbol basically made up of ninety degree angled lines, which now in modern culture encompasses and signifies a group of people who have a certain set of beliefs that the rest of society does not agree with. One symbol can identify thousands of peoples and their way of thinking. Is an image of a goat headed demon no different than that of an image of a man crucified? Only the reaction to such an image makes it significant. What of monuments that already have been in place that represent past views that no longer hold a favourable outlook? In the wake of a mass shooting in 2015, that occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white man walked into a predominantly black church and began to open fire, racial tensions began to escalate and the use of the confederate flag that was hung at the state’s capital began to come into question. Following this situation was a country wide defacing of monuments that were symbolic of the southern confederacy. Most of the vandalism referenced the Black Lives Matter movement writing in spray paint, “this is the problem” over the confederate monuments. Most of these monuments have been on public display for many years now, yet it was not until a high number of racial incidents started to occur that these monuments were defaced. It may have not been the general public’s opinion that these monuments represented a past filled with racial hate crimes and brutality, but those of a certain racial demographic that the hate crimes and brutality happened to, saw it as such. It was not an attack on a given particular monument that caused the reaction of those who defaced it. As in the monument for the satanic temple or a confederate flag, what is represented as a symbol holding the weight of the past actions that they are attributed to, whether that is a positive or negative attribute depends on the person looking at it.

Kindlifresser or child eater
Kindlifresser or child eater

We get accustomed to a certain look of monuments and memorials when walking around cities or towns, usually consisting of men memorialised in bronze, a general on horseback with his sword in the air ready to lead his army into battle, or an elaborate water fountain. Most people just walk on by never taking a moment to stop and read who or what the reason behind the monument or memorial is about. Unless the viewer finds the monument offensive: only then does it seems to gain attention as in the case of the symbolic confederate monuments and the piece for the Satanic Church mentioned above. On examination some artists seem to have challenged the convention of what a monument or memorial generally looks like with the meaning only bestowed by the artist. In Bern, Switzerland stands a monument titled Kindlefresserbrunnen, which translates as “Fountain of the eater of Children”, dating back to the 17th century. It shows an ogre-like creature with a mouthful of a naked baby and four more in its satchel. The meaning behind such a creation is unknown yet many speculate it representing a Jew as an expression of blood libel against Jews, while others see it as a likeness to the folklore creature krampus, warning small children not to be naughty for Christmas. Whatever the reason behind it, it shows a gruesome scene that the town has allowed to be shown throughout the centuries. The main reason why it still stands could possibly be the attraction of tourism from around the world that brings in income to the small town. Besides showing a gruesome scene of an ogre eating children, a less conventional method to monuments appears in Melbourne, Australia, of the statue of Charles La Trobe. It is a generic monument in its construction beside the fact that it is completely upside down and stands on the head of Charles La Trobe. The artist says it embodies the notion that universities should turn ideas on their heads. That reversal of perspective is one way to get the artist’s point across. Another way of creating a monument that is all about meaning is one of the traitors of the American Revolutionary War, Benedict Arnold. It seems it would have been wrong to memorialize him as an actual figure in bronze, so the artist decided to make a monument of his boot. The boot tells the story of his career ending injury that eventually led to him switching sides and joining the ranks of the British army. Though his name is not on the monument, it stands at the battleground in which the injury took place.

'Landmark' (2006) Charles Robb, an inverted statue of Charles Joseph Latrobe
‘Landmark’ (2006) Charles Robb, an inverted statue of Charles Joseph Latrobe

It is a breath of fresh air that these monuments exist, catching the attention of the ongoing traffic of the public’s daily lives. Does one have to create such an obscene structure for it to be noticed? It seems so. The artist here challenged the convention of what a monument or memorial should look like, giving it more of a reason for the public to question its existence. When viewing a monument or memorial that we are accustomed of seeing, one does not question it. It blends in with its surroundings and it produces no cognitive thinking within the viewer—but it must evoke such a response in order to give it significance. Only until one turns a monument on its head does the public really see it for what it is and questions it—why is that? Throughout history, monuments and memorials have been attributed the same principles of the reason behind its construction and the basic aesthetic principles of what it should look like, therefore the public as in the past and the present have been trained to understand such a creation without question (Bonder, 2009). Only until one sees a different outlook on such a thing is one taken back by it. Picture a grave site with perfect erected gravestones, all similar in color and construction, all in line and symmetric in its layout. The hundreds of gravestones become this one total picture, until you notice the one gravestone that has fallen over. We don’t question why all the rest are standing, we question why the one has fallen over, and our attention becomes focused on the one that stands out because it erupts the pattern of what we are programed of seeing. This anomaly is the same for monuments and memorials that challenge the conventional standard.

In conclusion the common significance of monuments or memorials seems to be the same throughout history. Only recently have artists changed the way a monument or memorial is presented whether or not taking into account the public’s opinion. The public’s opinion is one of a state of comfort enjoying the time old representation of history’s prominent figures depicted in a casual position made of bronze or stone that seems to get more attention from the pigeons that use it to rest their wings on. Society seems to use these structures as a way of awarding the dead or an event, a permanent space within its culture, only to become comfortable with its presence, as it fades into the surroundings of everyday life. Once an artist challenges the convention, does the public fully engage with it. We can see a change happening, as the standard model for creating such a thing is beginning to broaden the scope of the where, what, when and why of monuments and memorials. They seem to exist to elevate the subject to a monumental position. Examples from history show that the monuments and memorials built thousands of years ago are the only thing left standing from the society who builds them. It could be to forever be remembered and to never be forgotten (as in the case of why artist choose to create such a work). As for the public’s opinion, does it really matter? Only when the content opposes a belief system or represents a negative ideal does the public’s opinion come into question mobilised by mass media moral panic. As time moves on we will begin to see a radical shift in the way of a monument or memorial is represented.





Crum, Maddie (2015) “Prisoners Make Therapeutic Art Monuments Addressing The Death Penalty”, Huffington Post, October 9. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/prison-inmates-make-therapeutic-art-monuments_us_55f06f63e4b03784e27778fc

Greenwald, Glenn (2014) No place to hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US surveillance state. Macmillan.

Bonder, Julian (2009) ‘On Memory, Trauma, Public Space, Monuments, and Memorials,’ Places, 21(1), 62. Retrieved from: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/4g8812kv

Jenkins, Nash (2015) “Hundreds Gather for Unveiling of Satanic Statue in Detroit”, Time Magazine, July 27. Retrieved from: http://time.com/3972713/detroit-satanic-statue-baphomet/