Wood s Lot posted a few links about monuments as I was sorting some photos. The World Monuments Watch site is certainly significant placed against the background of iconclasm/iconoclash the critical community has marketed in the post 9/11 climate. Monuments interest me, but for a wider range of possibilities.

I came of age in the 1970s, when Lee Friedlander was doing the American Monuments thing. It was influential for many reasons—the reversal of the spectator role (the spectator became the subject), the utter banality of monumental structures in American life, and their ubiquity. In a profound way, Friedlander cut monuments down to size—although for most Americans, they are already pretty diminutive. They are refrigerator magnets or desktop accessories.

During the 60s and 70s, photography made monumental banality a subject of choice. In the 00s, monuments have become just as cliché as a topic for political controversy. Whether discussing the explosive impact of the Taliban on Buddhist tradition, or the flag wavers toppling the monuments of Saddam, it seems as if monuments have been rediscovered. One might as well announce that noses have been discovered as the organizing locus of the face, or eyes as the mirror of the soul.

Hesitantly, I crossed paths with the category “monuments” in a paper I am working on for the Sweetland conference. The position of monuments in relation to intellectual property in the US is a curious one. A monument (since the changes in US copyright law addressing the Berne Convention) can be classed either as a sculpture or as a work of architecture. The difference is significant because sculptures can be copyrighted whereas buildings (because they are “useful articles”) are not protectable under US copyright law.

Last March, I began thinking about originary markers—monuments erected at birthplaces. As I sorted my photos, I became appalled that I didn’t visit Gerald Ford’s birthplace in Omaha, Nebraska on this latest round of trips. But I did visit a couple of birthplace sites last March in Missouri.

Birthplace monuments are often neither sculpture nor architecture. I visited Harry Truman’s birthplace in Lamar, Missouri last March—there are three “structures” there. A sign announcing it:

Truman's Birthplace

A tombstone sort of thing:


And finally, a weird outhouse sort of structure in the corner of the lot:

Truman's Birthplace

Of course, the outhouse might have belonged to the property next door; I’m not sure.

George Washington Carver’s birthplace was a bit more tangible as a physical artifact:

Birthplace Site

Ultimately, it seems as if such “sites” are beyond protection because in many cases the “monument” need not even exist, let alone be defended. It’s not that I’m against carefully monitoring our cultural heritage (as exemplified by monuments)— it’s just that the question of what should be protected is seldom simple. I doubt that the boards which outline the house where George Washington Carver was born are original boards. Does this matter? Can the real function of a monument be destroyed?

If the sphinx’s nose is blasted off during target practice, should it be replaced with a prosthetic or with a plaque outlining the irreverence of the soldiers who did it? Is a monument anyone’s property to merchandise or sell? There are big questions of commodification which lurk behind the urge to protect cultural monuments.