Friday, August 16, 2013

Contested History and Public Sculpture

The Atlantic Cities had a great piece on Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. It explores the re-writing of Macedonian history and the ways in which public sculpture plays a role.

Skopje 2014 wants to settle Macedonian history once and for all: to root an ethnically-diverse, 21-year-old modern state in a unifying and uncomplicated vision of the past. Whether it succeeds or not, the attempt has left a deep mark on an already-dizzying cityscape.
My scholarly work on Venice focuses on the use of images, texts, and rituals to shape and re-shape Venetian identity, so this is right my alley. Much of the battle is over Alexander the Great, but it's so much bigger. This is well worth reading (and looking at the pictures), for all of you interested in the ways that historical memory infuses contemporary issues.

Loring Danforth, a professor of anthropology at Bates College and author of a book on the Greece-Macedonia dispute, says that claims on the region's ancient history get at sensitivities that are unexpectedly contemporary.
"If you grew up going to Greek or Macedonian schools, it would be as if somebody claimed that George Washington was British, or if the British claimed that he was one of their national heroes," Danforth says of the controversy over which country Alexander the Great rightfully belongs to. In controversies over national symbols—the name included—both sides believe that the other is claiming some indelible aspect of their national being. And neither is secure enough in its national self-definition to cede any ground to the other.

One possible and deeply problematic way out of this is to double down—to glorify a single, straightforward, and unapologetically nationalist narrative in marble and bronze, and at a scale meant to eliminate any and all doubt. It’s a narrative of historic accomplishments, from St. Cyril’s invention of the Cyrilic alphabet to Czar Samuel’s conquests, and of heroic resistance against centuries of outside rule—against Ottoman occupation, Bulgarian and Greek conspiracies, and the total indifference of the great powers. Like any good national myth, it ends in victory and revival, with the glories of the past fueling an equally glorious present.

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