‘Temporary Monuments, Art, Land, and America’s Racial Enterprise’ raises issues about permanence

Ruth Wolf reads the book 'Temporary Monuments,' which deals with a subject, monuments, that seems to be on everyone's mind these days. In the end, Wolf sums up that statues and monuments come from stories, which -- over time -- change, for many reasons, including through population changes, attitude changes, and changes revealed about the initial stories, which in many cases were distortions of the truth. What art and archaeology teach us, Wolf writes, is that "each civilization is built on the backs of and by the bricks of the previous civilization. Change is the only constant." Enjoy the review. Links to the book included.

A book cover shows a landscape photograph in the background with the words "Temporary Monuments" in bold yellow running vertically on the right side. The author is Rebecca Zorach. The book's subtitle is Art, Land, and our Racial Enterprise

Art, Land, and America’s Racial Enterprise

By Rebecca Zorach
University of Chicago Press
$30.00, paperbound

When I decided to read and write a review about this book, it was based on my on-going internal aesthetic debate about preserving my own artwork and questioning the permanence of all art work.


I continue to be saddened whenever I think about the Buddhas being blown up by the Taliban in 2001.

In her book, Temporary Monuments Rebecca Zorach writes about the power that monuments and their placement in the environment have in shaping the way a population perceives itself and the “others” in society. She writes about how those in power, those building the monuments, exploit, control and destroy. About the “others” living in a world of manipulation and victimization overshadowed by these exploitative monuments being touted as “art,” that is, beneficent.

The famous earthwork that forms a spiral in the Great Salt Lake. Created by Robert Smithson in 1970.
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty from Rozel Point, 1970. Photo created 2005. Public Domain



Zorach details, in depth, the political use of monuments – statues, gardens, parks – to inculcate social boundaries, to enslave and to destroy.

It was a difficult and disturbing read, and I found her tone to be very condescending and judgmental.

She writes a lot about a system of judgments based on a White,*** European, Male HIS-story, that led to the nasty place the world is in today. Yet she uses these tenets to further her arguments.
I found myself asking – ‘Can we judge the actions of the past by today’s standards?’ Twice, Zorach poses the question or dilemma of historical context (on page 48 and again on page 133), twice not answered. Can it be answered!? Should it be answered!? Or, rather used as a reference to gauge just how far society has progressed and how much more work still needs to be done.


Zorach writes about the artist-activist being on the forefront of social reform. Again her tone is negative. On Earthworks – “Spiral Jetty”(Robert Smithson, 1970) is deemed overly aesthetic and a work of cultural appropriation, instead of acknowledging his concern for ecology and the reclamation of land damaged by an oil drilling operation. Smithson’s piece is contrasted with a project by Amanda Williams “Color(ed) Theory Suite” 2014-16, that addresses home, neighborhood and placeholding.

A close up of a woman's smiling face. She's wearing glasses and her curly hair frames her face.
Rebecca Zorach, author of “Temporary Monuments.” Photo courtesy of the publisher

While I enjoyed learning about Amanda Williams’s art work, smashing “Spiral Jetty” felt like the Taliban smashing the Buddhas.

I guess I’m just tired of all the name-calling, bullying and hate, and this book adds to that genre.

I found Zorach’s discussion of “place” to be interesting.

She talks about the wilderness, the ungoverned, and the untamed;
she quotes from Thoreau (chapter 2). Chapters 5 and 6 contain a long discussion defining home and place.
Chapter 5: Home – color, abstraction, estrangement and the grid
Chapter 6: Walls and Borders – holding place

Space – the painter’s picture plane – is considered a workspace or place, a piece of land rather than a view of the world.

Place is a specific physical location, a position on a map or grid.
Grids as maps designate the placement of neighborhoods, public spaces and monuments, and by extension who can enter or be excluded by the boundaries on these grids – redlining, gerrymandering, racial politics, community dynamics, activism.

How was “the wild” – Indigenous America – transformed into “the grid”, THE monument of the 21st Century?

Henry David Thoreau – “…and it (a nation) is compelled to make manure of the bones of its fathers.” (page 59)

Zorach also quotes from Rosalind Krauss – the grid is “what art looks like when it turns its back on nature.”

An ancient carved rock Buddha from Afghanistan, which, in 2001, was partly destroyed by the Taliban causing worldwide outrage and sadness at the loss of the World Heritage statues.
Buddha of Bamiyan, 2001. By Fars Media Corporation, CC BY 4.0,

Thoreau, abstraction and earthworks are woven into a story of how monuments in the form of sculptures, parks and paintings developed into depictions of factual information about Western Civilization. Then, idealization, iconoclasm, and natural deterioration revise the meaning. Whether it is blowing up World Heritage Sites (the Buddhas), tearing down Confederate icons (Robert E. Lee), the sinking and reemergence of “Spiral Jetty,” or repurposing abstraction, what art and archaeology teach us is that each civilization is built on the backs of and by the bricks of the previous civilization.

Change is the only constant.

***Zorach, on page 7 – “I’ve made a decision in this book to capitalize the word “white” when using it as a racial identity.”

Read more reviews by Ruth Wolf on Artblog.