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Declaration of Truth by Elaine Hullihen

Sculptor and performance artist Elaine Hullihen is making an open call for you to make a “declaration of truth” and post it on youtube.  These videos will be compiled and shown in the Sculpture Center in Cleveland, Ohio in April of 2011. The exhibition will also include Hullihen’s model of Monticello that also doubles as a podium for those to present their declarations during the exhibition.

Please view Elaine’s call…..

Please view Elaine’s declaration,  Art Stated as Truth.

Being fortunate enough to have Elaine as a dear friend, she sent me her project write-up for the Sculpture Center, which includes her thoughts, and inspirations for doing an exhibition based on fundamental realities, especially those of Thomas Jefferson and the recent acts of Texas Board of Education. As a historian, I feel that there is an urgency built around Hullihen’s plea for truth as our elected officials are placing under-qualified individuals in positions that effect the masses, and in this case the next generations.

Below are Elaine’s intimate thoughts on her inspirations for Declaration of Truth.

To me, art is a way of seeing, being and acting in the world. So this artist statement is really a practice in seeing, a template for the ideals that I would someday like to embody more fully.  My inspiration for this project came from a sense of injustice at a wrongdoing, at least what I thought was a wrong doing, that I had read about.

In March of 2010, the Texas Board of Education voted to approve social studies curriculum that drastically affects the ideas that will be taught to our doe eyed youth for the next ten years. They made over 100 amendments to the 120-page curriculum standard that was proposed by teachers. The board is made up of elected members of the community; none of which happen to be historians or sociologists. They are instead dentists, lawyers and real estate agents- just to name a few. Many board members quoted in the media openly state that they are consciously creating a Christian/political right bias (“balance” is the word they use) for the benefit of our country’s young minds. Some members (but not enough) are beside themselves with indignation. Here are a few of the changes and defeated proposals:

I just want to mention a few of the board changes now, but if you would like to read more I can set you up with a copy of a HYPERLINK “” New York Times article that gives a version of what happened during the meetings.

The board sought to reject the inclusion of Latino figures as role models.

Voted to add conservative ideals and figures including the Contract with America, Moral Majority, National Rifle Association, and Rush Limbaugh.

Approved to change the representation of the civil rights movement by emphasizing the allegedly violent tactics of the Black Panthers instead of the nonviolence of Martin Luther King Jr.

One board member proposed to add lessons teaching that  “the founding fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring the government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion above all others.” This was defeated.

Believing that capitalism is gaining a negative connotation, they replaced the word with the phrase “free-enterprise system.”

Reasoning that  “society is blamed for everything”, the board voted to require the teaching of the importance of personal responsibility for life choices such as teenage suicide, dating violence, sexuality, drug use and eating disorders.

They reject the notion of the separation of church and state and voted to delete the man who coined the phrase, Thomas Jefferson, from the list of key thinkers who inspired the 18th and 19th century revolutions. Jefferson will be replaced with John Calvin (1509-1564) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

Artist Elaine Hullihen as Thomas Jefferson

In theory, this method of teaching history seems logical and is certainly nothing new. Thomas Jefferson once said, “the earth belongs always to the living generation.” There is no other effective way to make sense of the multitudes of information that the passage of time leaves rather than filtering out what’s most important and saving it for posterity. “Important”, however, is such a problematic term. So as our times change and the issues of the living generation change so should which histories we draw from for inspiration, right?

In reality, this method of creating history proves to be nothing short of indoctrination and identity politics. If what is important is different to each individual, or group, then those with the power of authority over the masses decide what gets passed into posterity.  Unfortunately, those with authority are using their power to serve their own visions instead of embracing the chance to serve the collective lives of others (as their position requires).

Many people that I have discussed this issue with are a. surprised and aghast that they hadn’t heard anything about it. and b. exclaim that “you can’t change history”. True, you can’t change history, but you must select it. Through the filtering of information you can color the stories and the people in them as positive or negative. By necessity, consciously or unconsciously, this is how history has been produced, as far back as I know, perhaps always. It just isn’t always apparent. The history of the settling of our country comes to us as children as one of triumph and progress because, it was written by those who had triumphed. The Native Americans who survived the massacre of the white man no doubt preserved their own history, but they do not have a sufficient voice in America. We know how they lived, we know that we slaughtered them, we know that we took their land, but we know it from one side, the side of the white man, the side of the victor, the side that claims that what was done was necessary. We find the same situation when we examine American slavery.

Walking through the house and gardens of Monticello re-united me with my previous distaste for the pursuits of the white man in America with the ideals that America purports of its intentions and it’s people. Each tour guide talked about slavery, of Sally Hemmings and Jefferson’s lifestyle. And each tour guide, as well as other people taking the tour, asserted that despite those facts, Jefferson did great things; and he did- for us. Of course these people would say that his misgivings don’t diminish him, we are the beneficiaries of his work. Well, we are taught to believe we are at least.

Was the work done by the slaves worth the time Jefferson saved for himself to write about his ideals and indoctrinating a sense of righteousness for the “empire of freedom” he dreamed to create? What does it mean to say that Jefferson never made decisive moves to implement his ideals (freedom for all?) in his lifetime and that those very ideals are arguably used as veils of control today and perhaps were intended to be right from the get-go?

As I get caught up in these stories and snippets of fact from the past, I rack my brain over what I see as injustice. As I find myself judging these historical figures I begin to loose sight of what’s really important. I will never know what happened in between the moments of history I read about. I will never be able to view anything completely because of the limitations of my own sight as well as that of the authors of the selected histories I read. So what is really important here? How can we use history differently today to inform our lives now and in the future? How can this feed in to our sense of identity as Americans as well as our relationship with each other? How can our future documentations of history include more voices?

Before I propose an answer to that I would like to examine the current function of history a little closer. History is passed along to generations of American kids from an unknown author, a trusted author, who is concerned with what is “good”, “united” and “free”.  While many people (people who were privileged enough to have a college education and access to alternate texts), would look at history and empathetically think about the situations from multiple points of view. That is fine in a setting like this, but you can only go so far before you start stepping on some serious toes and fucking with the reality of a national identity that has been ingrained in us- and not by accident.

In effect, I believe that nothing can be objective that comes from a subjective mouth or hand. And I think it dangerous to purposefully remove or tell partial facts that are tailored to the “authority’s” desired result while using this authority to purport these histories as absolute truth. It would be slightly more comprehendible if the results of Texas’ meetings could be presented to children as our society’s current selection of historical events, assuring them that there is more than meets the eye. The histories will, instead, be taught to children by trusted authority figures as the one and only truth; “This is our history”, plain and simple. It will be presented in such a way that has the potential to completely and utterly flavor these children’s point of view at this crucial stage of their development and is in danger of denying them the tools to critically think through opposing viewpoints.

What if history was presented from a subjective point of view? What if the ‘facts’ given to our children were colored with the flavors of more perspectives than before? This could get infinitely complicated as history taught in the public schools is filtered and summarized partly out of necessity. I am proposing that we start now to take hold of the documentation of our current history in order to preserve as many viewpoints as possible. This is the impetus behind my YouTube call for Declarations of Truth from anyone who cares to speak up. I am also inviting groups into a gallery show to make public declarations on top of a podium that I will build shaped like Monticello. These declarations will be presented on YouTube at first, then possibly spread to other websites or media as the project grows.

Besides my desire to participate in a social dialogue, this endeavor is personally interesting because until now I had written off the founding fathers of our country as stuffy, arrogant white men who took over a land and ruined lives they had no business destroying. And while I still have this view I don’t feel as dogmatic about it anymore. Thinking seriously about history in an “interpretive” way has inspired me to rethink my previous prejudices and view the creation of our nation through different eyes, eyes that feel simultaneously more opened and more closed. The land destroying business is still very present, but I am broadening my perspective and thinking about these men more humanely than I previously did. I feel that practicing empathy in this way brings a broader understanding of humanity in general and can be very useful to society as a whole.

In using Thomas Jefferson as the figurehead of this project, I am not saying that his thinking was perfect and we should lament or heroics this potentially fading historical figure. I am exploring, rather, the wish for humanity that his man seems to have had. Searching for the truth in history may sound very close to what the Texas Board of Education has just done. I, however, am not claiming any of my whimsies to be fact or claim to have the knowledge to reshape the histories that are currently taught. With this exhibition, I am taking historical clues and creating a platform to bring a possibility of new dialogue and inspire new solutions for the documentation of our present history that will hopefully begin to combat what I see as a systematic destruction of those possibilities for future generations.

Elaine Hullihen August 4, 2010

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