OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Erika Doss

Portrait of Erika Doss

Erika Doss is a professor in the department of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches courses in American, modern, and contemporary art and cultural studies. Her wide-ranging interests in American art and visual culture are reflected in the breadth of her publications, which include Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism (1991), Spirit Poles and Flying Pigs: Public Art and Cultural Democracy in American Communities (1995), Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith, and Image (1999), Twentieth-Century American Art (2002), and Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (2010). Her recent monographs include The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials: Towards a Theory of Temporary Memorials (2008). Doss is also the editor of Looking at Life Magazine (2001), a coeditor of the Culture America series for the University Press of Kansas, and a member of the editorial boards of Memory Studies, Public Art Dialogue, and Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief. The recipient of several Fulbright awards, Doss has also held fellowships at the Stanford Humanities Center, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Her current research projects are "Spiritual Moderns: Twentieth-Century American Artists and Religion" and "I AM America: Art, Belief, and Ultra-Patriotism during the Great Depression."

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Why do we make memorials in America today, and why do we make so many of them? Just in the past few decades, thousands of new memorials—from permanent memorials to temporary roadside memorials—have materialized in the American landscape. This talk focuses on contemporary American interests in memory and history and urgent desires to express them in public art and commemoration. Arguing that today's "memorial mania" is driven by heated struggles over self-definition, national purpose, and the politics of representation, it further considers the fevered pitch of public feeling in contemporary America, including grief, gratitude, fear, shame, and anger.
In October 2003, the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial was dedicated in Duluth, Minnesota, where in 1920 three young African American men were brutally tortured and lynched by a mob of some 10,000 people. If lynching once fed a rapacious American appetite for sadistic racism, today's commemoration of lynching suggests growing recognition of the nation's shameful legacy of racist violence. Like other lynching recovery projects, Duluth's lynching memorial animates this shame, and redirects the dehumanizing spectacle of lynching to a project focused on "bearing witness" to its victims. Today, growing numbers of shame-based memorials, including those that recall the subjects of racial terrorism and slavery, are being raised. This talk considers why "sites of shame" are increasingly considered places worthy of commemoration in contemporary America, and their transformative impact in American culture and society.
In the past few decades, thousands of new memorials have materialized in the American public landscape, including seemingly spontaneous offerings of flowers, candles, balloons, and teddy bears erected at sites of tragic and traumatic death, such as New York’s World Trade Center in 2001. These temporary memorials represent changed cultural and social practices regarding formerly privatized performances of grief and mourning, and changed understandings of death and dying. They further embody heightened expectations of the capacity of public, material, and affective cultures to negotiate the psychic crisis of sudden and often inexplicable loss. Focusing on select examples of temporary memorials, this paper considers the expanded presence and privileging of grief, among other public feelings, in contemporary American means of commemoration.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1933, the federal government responded to the crisis of the Great Depression with “New Deal” programs aimed at economic reform, work relief, and generating a positive sense of self and national survival among American citizens. American art played a major role in the New Deal: thousands of artists employed by various government agencies produced hundreds of thousands of prints, posters, photographs, films, paintings, murals, sculptures, and textile designs. Despite social and political stress on certain themes and subjects—such as national unity and confidence—the art of the New Deal was remarkably pluralistic. As this talk details, from 1933 through the mid-1940s, the New Deal legitimated diverse forms of American culture and spurred a renaissance in modern American art.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) remains one of America's most recognized and discussed artists: denounced by some for his supposedly cheesy promotion of family values and US patriotism; celebrated by others for his remarkably astute take on social relationships and emotional nuance. This lecture considers a diverse number of Rockwell's pictures of America and considers their popularity in terms of story telling, style, and emotional connection with American audiences.