Monuments, Altars, Ceramic Tiles, And The Passions Stamped On These Lifeless Things

Caleb Duarte Piñon distinguishes between monuments and altars. Monuments are overwhelming, huge, hard to break, violently jammed into the earth. They reinforce, reproduce, extend power. Monuments violently silence stories people tell about themselves, they suppress every story but their own. The stories told by monuments end in morals. They serve power, they work to control. Only the powerful can call monuments into being.1

Altars are human scale creations, spontaneously precipitated out of a shared desire to tell a shared story. Created both together and individually, this work coalesces socially to express something of the community. Altars are temporary, shifting, laid down upon the earth gently. They quietly amplify the stories people tell about themselves, they celebrate every story woven into them. The stories told by altars don’t end in morals. They don’t end at all, they’re liberating. Anyone can call altars into being.

Monuments can outlast the powerful people whose violent coercion brought them into being, which can be seen as irony, or at least Percy Shelley thought so:


I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

But not all is lost to time. Something essential has survived:

             … [the] frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
[That] tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

There are people who lived on this earth tens of thousands of years ago about whom nothing is known other than that they made objects out of clay and fired them. The objects tell us what their sculptors stamped on those lifeless things, which is no more and no less than we know about monuments as old. The stories the kings of kings meant to tell are lost in the lone and level sands, but the sculptors’ art remains. Thirty thousand years erases the kings and leaves only expressions of the artist’s spirit, the spirit of the artist’s world and community, human expressions.

Shelley’s sculptor worked in stone, but fired clay is as hard and clay is just mud. It’s everywhere and it’s as good as free. Everyone has access to clay. Every person can contribute human-scale altar pieces that, even while celebrating the altar’s temporary nature, can nevertheless outlast, if not monuments, at least their intended meanings, their control. After thirty thousand years the cultural context is obscured and nothing is left but what the sculptor stamped on those lifeless things.

The kiln is the only bottleneck. Without a kiln clay washes away as soon as it’s wet. But kilns are very, very shareable resources. Community kilns and access to clay can make human-scale peaceful monuments out of our altars. It may be possible to pit fire tiles as well, although I don’t know enough about this to say.

W. E. B. DuBois once famously noted that:

We have the record of kings and gentlemen ad nauseam and in stupid detail; but of the common run of human beings, and particularly of the half or wholly submerged working group, the world has saved all too little of authentic record and tried to forget or ignore even the little saved.2

Which is indeed a problem, but after thirty thousand years it kind of solves itself. It’s no longer possible to write the record of kings and gentlemen in any level of detail. The paper is gone, digital media, machines to read it, all gone beneath the sands. But a half inch thick tile fired hot enough is as durable as any ordinary human artifact and more durable than most. And it can be made by anyone with access to clay and a kiln.

And it’s a historical source, maybe not for historians in the next few centuries or even millenia, although maybe for historians next week, because who can see the future? But for historians thirty thousand years from now, when this world of pain and its rulers’ monuments have crumbled, those clay tiles will still be around, and some of them will be found, and what each sculptor stamped on those lifeless things will be read and considered and known in the future. Which is not nothing.

  1. We can say that the monument is an immense solid architectural structure or statue, protruding from the earth, almost in a violent aggressive form that imposes itself in the public realm; therefore we, as a society, encourage monuments to do our memory work for us, leading us to becoming that much more forgetful. This seems to encourage a selective collective memory that benefits those in power.

    What I have found by working with Zapatista and Mexican communities is that the realm of memory takes shape through some kind of magical realism, where the Aztec Empire and Spanish conquest are still very much present in everyday life. The altar, small shrines or “installations” placed at the corners of homes, temples, and in public spaces throughout Mexico, demonstrate this kind of fluid memory that is created and maintained by the very people who wish to practice a “living memory.” Altars change from day to day in an exchange between objects and people and in participatory acts of remembering, with candles and tequila bottles, sugar skulls, and photos of loved ones that are in constant transition.

    Once the transfer of memories or ideas through objects and actions is no longer the center and purpose of creation, then the object becomes propaganda and is no longer an expression of the artist or the people.

    —— Caleb Duarte Piñon in Zapantera Negra pp35-6.

  2. Preface to A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States. Herbert Aptheker. Volume 1.

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