Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

What’s So Interesting About the Past? An Interview About Ruins, Monuments, and Memorials


Alex King interviews philosophers
Jeanette Bicknell, Jennifer Judkins, and Carolyn Korsmeyer.

Jeanette Bicknell, Jennifer Judkins, and Carolyn Korsmeyer recently co-edited a collection of new essays, Philosophical Perspectives on Ruins, Monuments, and Memorials. From the book description:

This collection of newly published essays examines our relationship to physical objects that invoke, commemorate, and honor the past. The recent destruction of cultural heritage in war and controversies over Civil War monuments in the US have foregrounded the importance of artifacts that embody history. … The authors consider issues of preservation and reconstruction, the nature of ruins, the aesthetic and ethical values of memorials, and the relationship of cultural memory to material artifacts that remain from the past.

See the full list of contributing authors here.

Below, Alex King interviews them about themes from the volume.

To start off, could you talk about the relationship you see between ruins, monuments, and memorials? They are all typically built structures of a certain kind, but why address them together in one book?

JENNIFER JUDKINS, CAROLYN KORSMEYER, JEANETTE BICKNELL: First of all, our thanks to AFB for this interview! (Since there are three of us, we’ll answer here in turn. As with the anthology, all three of us discussed and edited each other’s responses.)

JJ: We really wanted to bring together work that considers our relationship to history and culture through the physical objects that invoke, commemorate, and honor the past. The volume is arranged in three sections. The first, “Honoring and Mourning,” presents several analyses of monuments and memorials—including gravestones and churches —that address the question of just how it is that mute artifacts (even stone itself!) can convey meaning. The next section, “Ruins Past and Present,” offers reflections on what makes for a ruin and the value of ruin preservation. The essays of the final section, “Conflict, Destruction, and the Aftermath,” are related to those in sections one and two, as disaster and conflict can create ruins that then become memorials to their own destruction.

At the heart of the anthology is a consideration of remembrance and loss, a topic that has been sharpened by recent global conflicts and the resulting devastation of architectural and cultural heritage. Along with providing shelter and utility, material remnants from the past perpetuate awareness of what has gone before us: an awareness of the individuals who lived and worked within walls now collapsed, the misfortunes they endured, and the triumphs they celebrated. Some structures—monuments and memorials in particular—are erected with this explicit purpose. Other structures, such as ruins, measure our creations (and ourselves) against time and change.

Monuments and memorials are designed to last, to remain as prompters of remembrance far beyond the events recalled in living memory. They can exemplify a great scale of loss by bridging and connecting individual tragedies and communal mourning. They commemorate the past, whether that past is shared, contested, or troubled.

While monuments and memorials represent deliberate declarations of value, the case of ruins is somewhat different. They summon awareness of the transience of life and the vulnerability of even the most committed efforts of civilization. Unfortunately, ruins don’t always occur as a result of the passage of time and the erosions of nature. Recent malevolent and unrestrained devastation has robbed future generations of material cultural heritage.

It’s also interesting to consider what counts as a ruin, a monument, or a memorial. When is something a ruin as opposed to just debris? How public must an artifact be to count as a memorial? For instance, could my great-grandmother’s ring be a small, wearable memorial to her?

CK: These three concepts often overlap, for there are monuments erected as memorials (such as war memorials, a topic addressed by several authors in the book) and there are ruins that become memorials, such as the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima (discussed by Yuriko Saito). Certainly smaller, more private items can be cherished for the person who once owned them, although the better term for that is probably ‘keepsake’. Tombs or grave markers are both personal and communal, sustaining memories of loved ones in the open space of a graveyard. (Kathleen Higgins discusses stones and graves.) The notion of a ‘memorial’ obviously pertains to preservation of memory, but certain structures that are not memorials per se are designed to keep memory alive as an active practice, as Noël Carroll’s discussion of the design of Roman Catholic churches demonstrates.

The artifacts covered in this book are generally public, although some are not at all well-known. While more or less everyone knows about the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington DC (discussed by Deborah Knight), few have visited the small memorial in New Zealand that opens James O. Young’s analysis of war memorials. And while we tend to think of monuments as being made of hard, durable materials, not all are of this sort. Knight also considers the AIDS Quilt, a huge memorial made of cloth; and among Geoffrey Scarre’s examples is a memorial to the whaling industry made from the bones of a whale. And certain artifacts defy categorization, such as the ossuaries—bone chapels—discussed by Susan Feagin and myself.

So much controversy now surrounds monuments of historical figures we now see as having committed—or at least been party to—atrocious acts. What should we think of these monuments? And although we might see some memorials this way, they are less frequently at the center of such debates. Why do you think that is, and is there a justifiable difference between the cases?

JJ: We feel that one of the strengths of this volume is that more than a few essays engage monuments and memorials that are questionable, if not outrageous, today. One thread moving through all of those essays is a thick assertion that each controversial case, being a part of its own community, deserves its own specific reckoning in regard to alteration, re-contextualization, or destruction. Saito speaks about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two cities that each memorialized the dropping of the atomic bomb very differently.

In regard to memorials, they may be less frequently at the center of such debates, but when they are, passions run strong. Jeanette Bicknell addresses the controversy over the former Calhoun College at Yale University, whose name memorializes a notorious slaveholder. Memorials invite us to share the past, and they articulate a collective, but often specific, memory of sacrifice and community. Disputes arise when an artifact commemorates persons and events that are now regarded with opprobrium, or when the design of a monument appears not to honor its subjects as it should. The original fury over the design for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. is a familiar example. Less well-known is the fiery debate examined by Ivan Gaskell over the exclusion of the names of Harvard men who died for the Confederacy from the university’s Memorial Hall.

Some memorials are much more emotionally stirring than others. For instance, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial is famously moving, but not every memorial speaks to us so strongly. Why do you think that is? Is it because of the way some memorials use space, how they use certain sorts of materials, or something else?

JB: That’s a great question, but not an easy one to answer. I would resist a strictly formalist answer. A skilled artist or designer shapes space and materials to direct our attention in specific ways. But memorials are not artworks set up for disinterested contemplation. They are designed to prompt memory, sometimes memory of terrible events. Although many memorials are quite large and require more physical engagement, even the simplest memorials—such as a small plaque on the side of a building listing the names of the inhabitants who were murdered—can be powerfully effective.

JJ: The most effective memorials resonate with the tragedy. They are clearly separated from the ordinary artifacts of daily life. Memorials don’t blend in; they are “marked.” They remind us of the catastrophe and articulate its cost. Yet the most effective memorials also guide our grief forward. Perhaps the best memorials point towards hope.

CK: The question of ‘space’ also pertains to where a memorial is situated. There are memorials to the Vietnam War in many places in the United States in addition to Lin’s famous wall in Washington DC. When those monuments list individuals who died in that conflict, they usually name people who lived nearby. As Young points out, very small communities sometimes have suffered disproportionately large casualties, and the sheer number of names engraved on a memorial can be terribly moving, suggesting as it does the huge extent of losses endured.

Ruins have both ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ values: they are manifestations of human transience and decay but can be aesthetically very rich and pleasing. Why do we often enjoy them?

CK, JJ, JB: Ruins serve to anchor us in time and history. Physical structures in various states of disrepair, decay, or abandonment are a tangible reminder of both the past and the passage of time. Ruins remind us that what today seems solid and immovable will one day be broken and crumbling.

Ruins, especially ancient ruins, have been objects of veneration and admiration for so long that they occupy their own aesthetic category. In the past they have been singled out for their picturesque qualities, and sometimes they put one in mind of the sublime. But ruins are not just remnants of the antique past, they are also the result of contemporary urban decay and environmental changes. Our authors deal with all of these subjects, from ruins of Asia (Ron Moore, Elizabeth Scarbrough), Europe’s romantic interest in ruins, both real and ‘sham’ (Peter Lamarque and Saul Fisher), and contemporary urban decay (Renee Conroy on the American rustbelt and Zoltán Somhegyi on Dubai). Whole cities can manifest the past in the way that ruins do (as Max Ryynänen says of Venice). Natural environments pillaged by industry are now being repurposed so as to show a past industry now turned to parkland and entertainment (Susan Herrington and Dominic McIver Lopes). The environment itself can be considered an issue of heritage with concerns for preservation and change (Erich Hatala Matthes).

I’d love to hear a bit about each of your favorite ruin sites, if you have any.

JJ: I wrote about London in my essay. One of my favorite sites is at 101 Lower Thames Street. The basement of a 1970’s office block is the custodian of the remains of a second or third-century Roman house or inn. The Roman house at Billingsgate (as it is called today), was discovered in 1848, and it featured underfloor heating, riverfront views, and traditional Roman hot and cold baths. On this site, beneath some of the ash and rubble of the Great Fire of 1666, laying on top of some Roman roof tiles, a Saxon woman’s brooch was found. Was she walking through these Roman ruins when she dropped it?

JB: I lived in Moscow over the 1992-93 winter. It was an exciting time, as Russians were in the process of re-examining their recent history. I remember buying a package of postcard reproductions from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was both fascinating and heart-breaking to see evidence of the many beautiful buildings that did not survive the revolution and WWI. Some—especially churches—were torn down for ideological reasons. Others fell into disrepair, and restoration was not a priority. It made me all the more appreciate the structures that did survive in some form. My interest in “ghost” buildings and ruins probably dates from that time.

CK: I don’t think I can name a favorite ruin, but I have always marveled at artifacts that suddenly call the past into the present, reminding one that we walk in the footsteps of people long gone. I was about ten when I found an arrowhead on the shore of a lake, and the thrill of that discovery remains. When I was a student in Scotland, I often walked among the ruins of a medieval abbey and felt the past rise around me. (I was afraid to do that at night; the past has ghosts.) When visiting ruins one is physically aware of everything—what you can touch, stumble over, sometimes even climb.

The restoration of ruins raises so many issues. The Taliban destroyed the Buddha statues in Bamiyan, and much of Hiroshima was destroyed by an American atom bomb. On the one hand, it seems like keeping ruins around helps people not to forget these tragedies and the people involved. On the other hand, when it’s an enormous swath of destroyed land, or a living site (say, an active church), restoration seems important. How should we approach these questions concerning ruination and restoration?

JJ: Interestingly, in putting together this volume, all of us learned much more about some of the world organizations protecting cultural heritage, such as UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). Derek Matravers and Robin Coningham/Kai Weise dig very specifically into cultural, and ethical concerns about restoration. The dominant view until recently, as Matravers puts it, was to “err on the side of caution” with respect to issues of restoration and reconstruction. He points out that that view comes under great pressure when heritage has been deliberately and maliciously damaged in acts of war.

Of course, monuments are often destroyed by other causes. Just as this volume was going to press, a fire erupted at Notre Dame, melting the lead roof and destroying the 800-year-old “forest” of supporting timbers. What is the way forward from this disaster? For many, this was a first experience with the very real grief accompanying the devastation of an architectural icon and its embodied history.

CK: Issues of restoration are especially complex when an object has been almost entirely destroyed. James Janowski considers the loss of the Bamiyan Buddhas, whose restorative fate is still undetermined, and Jeremy Page and Elisabeth Schellekens consider the equally famous destruction of Palmyra’s Temple of Bel. Scarbrough concludes that an ancient site in Vietnam that was hit by an American bomb should simply be left to decay. Decisions on such things are inevitably controversial, and much depends on the artifact in question.

On a related note, should we in general preserve human-built structures? Or, if there’s no general answer, what kinds of considerations favor preservation as opposed to destruction or allowed decay? In this context, I wonder what you think about unbuilt architectural plans. If we have reason to preserve human-built structures, is there any reason to construct unbuilt structures?

JB: I don’t think that there is a general obligation to preserve human-built structures. (For one thing, if we did, there would pretty soon be no space available for new buildings.) For much of history, knocking buildings down or allowing them to become ruined has been standard practice. I think that when we decide to preserve an old structure that is no longer functional, it is either because it has some historical significance, or we feel that our lives would be less rich without it.

Similarly, I don’t think there is a general obligation to construct unbuilt structures. Architects usually realize that many of their plans will go unbuilt, for a variety of reasons, often mundane. (And for anyone interested in the metaphysics of architecture, I urge you to read Fisher’s paper on sham ruins.)

CK: I agree, although I also think that our present-day mania for urban expansion makes the question of preservation rather urgent. Once something is torn down, it is gone forever; and if it has been replaced with a shopping mall that matches another mall a mile away, that seems like needless waste. In general, the practice of repurposing older structures for newer needs seems a sensible and more sustainable way to go.

As for building structures from unbuilt plans: that raises some very interesting questions about style and its placement in history. Perhaps it would satisfy curiosity to erect a building that was planned in, say, the sixteenth century, but what would be its place in the history of architecture?

JJ, CK, JB: Thanks again, Alex, for the opportunity to discuss something we’re all quite passionate about! We hope that the volume will prompt even more discussion.

[AFB note: The collection is available for purchase at Routledge or on Amazon.]

Notes on the Contributors
Jeanette Bicknell is an independent scholar and professional mediator based in Toronto, Canada. She is also the current Ombudsperson for the American Society for Aesthetics.

Jennifer Judkins (Music, UCLA) has twice served as a Trustee for the American Society for Aesthetics. Recently, she authored two articles in the Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music (2011), and was a guest editor/contributor to the “Symposium on Ruin and Absence” in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (2014).

Carolyn Korsmeyer is Research Professor of Philosophy at the University at Buffalo and a past president of the American Society for Aesthetics. Her most recent book is Things: In Touch with the Past (OUP 2019).

Edited by Alex King
Image credit: “Sand Castle 2” by Tim Green

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