Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 30, 2018
James E. Young The Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2018. 256 pp.; 115 color ills. $29.95 (9781625343611)

Over the past thirty years, James E. Young, who recently retired from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has studied and written on modern memorial art, most notably that devoted to the Holocaust. For much of his career, he held a joint appointment in English and Judaic studies at that university, and also served as the founding director of its Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies. Over this time, Young has become a significant scholar in each of these fields. In three important books and countless essays, he continues to demonstrate the importance of cultural artifacts to the field of Holocaust studies and to plumb the disparate forms and meanings of memorials.

Young starts each of his books with the same premise: that we can never truly understand what happened in the Holocaust. In his view, the best way to grapple with this dilemma is by looking closely at its representations. It is these diverse portrayals that Young has investigated over the past thirty years. His first study, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust (1988), focused on Holocaust narratives, considering everything from diaries to novels and poetry. In his next book, The Texture of Memory (1993), he examined Holocaust memorials, not only in Germany and Poland, where many of these atrocities took place, but also in Israel and the United States. In his third, At Memory’s Edge (2000), he studied contemporary artists’ engagement with the Holocaust. In all these works, Young’s writing offers a model of rigor and clarity. He consistently avoids jargon and directs his thoughtful scholarship to a wide audience.

In contrast to the author’s earlier books, The Stages of Memory is a more wide-ranging collection of essays. Most of them focus, once again, on representations of the Holocaust, and the majority have already appeared in exhibition catalogues and other publications over the past fifteen years. In this volume, the author looks at works of contemporary art and architecture, but also other topics such as fascist aesthetics and documentary photographs of female Holocaust victims. It also includes a survey of Daniel Libeskind’s four Jewish museums, a discussion of the controversial 2002 exhibition Mirroring Evil, and an assessment of several contemporary artists’ works that deconstruct the concept of the monument. Young has explored several of these topics in more depth in his previous publications.

The heart of this new book, however, examines the creation of contemporary monuments. The author’s two new contributions, the first and last in this volume, are also the most important and revealing. These provide detailed accounts of Young’s direct experiences working with memorial processes in the United States and in Norway. After the 9/11 attacks, he served first as a juror for the World Trade Center site memorial and then as a consultant for the Norwegian government following the Utoya mass shooting in 2011. What this new collection of essays shows most clearly is the author’s shifting role and voice. From a scholar and critic thoughtfully evaluating memorials, Young becomes a juror and consultant actively helping to shape their creation.

It is not surprising that the word “process” appears in the titles of these two principal essays. Process, Young writes in the introduction, is often more important to him than a specific result. What matters most in the creation of any monument, the author maintains, is that a plurality of voices and opinions are acknowledged. “In our age,” Young observes, “. . . the monument succeeds only insofar as it allows itself full expression of the debates, arguments, and tensions generated in the noisy give-and-take among competing constituencies driving its very creation” (16). It is this kind of memorial process, one that unfolds over time, that interests the author most and that helps to explain his book’s title: The Stages of Memory.

Young’s conception of how contemporary monuments function is founded on a long-held conviction: that our society no longer has a set of shared values and that because of this, no single individual understands the past in the same way. Citing Lewis Mumford and Sigfried Giedion, he argues that this modern condition has had a direct impact on how we build. “In an age that denies universal values,” Young contends, “there can be no universal symbols, the kind that monuments once represented” (14). For the author, even the proliferation of memorials in our own times can be viewed as nostalgia for this earlier age of “unified culture.”

If we accept that we live under such conditions, Young’s argument that a monument should be the result of a clash of contested views becomes more understandable. This perspective was also strongly shaped by the highly contentious process he witnessed firsthand in Berlin, serving as a competition juror for the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe in the late 1990s. Young details this experience in an essay from his 1999 book At Memory’s Edge entitled “Germany’s Holocaust Memorial Problem—and Mine.”

Since his time in Berlin, Young’s influence in the realm of commemorative practice has only increased. Writing about his more recent work as a consultant following Norway’s first mass shooting in 2011, he explains this new level of agency. In this effort, he notes, select academic experts like himself became “hands-on participants in the conceiving, designing, and building of national memorials” (191). His insightful chronicle of a community grappling with how best to remember such horror is both sensitive and moving.

Part of the power of Young’s essays on Utoya and 9/11 comes from the fact that these events have both a historical and a personal dimension for him. Because of his close ties to many important players in both projects, he can plumb emotional depths that other scholars simply could not. But this shift in role also requires a shift in voice. As a key actor in his own story, Young becomes both the subject and object of study. At times, as he carefully recounts his own experience, his scholarly study becomes an absorbing memoir.

Young has always been forthright in expressing his convictions concerning the proper function of contemporary monuments, but in this volume he also reveals his views on their appropriate style and character. Not surprisingly, over the twenty-year period since he served as a juror in Berlin, he has developed specific ideas about the attributes of a successful monument.

Young’s conceptual point of departure has been Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam Memorial, which he rightly regards as the most successful and influential monument of the postwar period. Like Lin, who served with him on the jury for the 9/11 memorial, Young values simple modernist structures composed of geometric forms and designed at a massive scale. In contrast to the triumphalism of earlier monuments, Lin’s design actually embodied the ambivalence surrounding the Vietnam War, a quality that Young (and countless artists and designers) have greatly admired. Like the generation of creators who went on to envision a range of “counter-monuments,” Young believes that designers should not attempt to “solve” the problems they represent or create “redemptive” memorials.

For Young, one of the most fitting metaphors of absence and loss in memorial culture is that of the void. He opens his book with two epigraphs underscoring its significance. The principal reference here is to the massive voids of New York’s World Trade Center twin towers, which formed the basis of that site’s winning memorial design. But the concept has a deeper resonance for Young. He uses it to introduce what he considers an essential question in monument design: how to articulate a void without filling it in. In his view, a successful memorial should never be fully resolved.

But if, as Young argues, a memorial should be the culmination of contested values and shifting meanings, what form should it take? Since the 1990s, a visual language of stark, massive, geometric structures has become canonical. In his essay on Nazi aesthetics, the author condemns Hitler’s concept of monumentality. What the dictator destroys, he writes, is the “uniqueness of individual experience” and the “messy heterogeneity of life itself” (134). Can monuments like Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, a four-acre grid made up of nearly three thousand massive rectangular concrete slabs adequately capture these qualities?

Throughout his career, Young has thought deeply about contemporary monuments, and in the Stages of Memory, he presents what amounts to a philosophy of their creation. The author’s emphasis on process is both sensible and compassionate, and his inclusive, democratic approach to monument making may be essential in our times. In these essays, Young integrates his insights as a historian of memorial culture with his experiences as a thoughtful participant in significant memorial processes. Few scholars have had the opportunity to link theory and practice so effectively. 

David Ehrenpreis
Professor of Art History, James Madison University