WHAT is the purpose of a modern memorial - of a monument to someone
or something that is meant to last forever? And must it be good
art? And who decides?
Such questions are at the core of the debate over the planned $100
million World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, which, as
presently envisioned, is an aesthetic disaster, a prime example of
bureaucratic high kitsch style not implausibly described as
watered-down Albert Speer by a few critics.
The plan by Friedrich St. Florian, an Austrian-trained architect
from Rhode Island, entails a giant sunken stone plaza and
reflecting pool, 56 17-foot-high commemorative pillars, two
four-story triumphal arches, gold stars, monumental bronze eagles,
bronze wreaths and fountains smack in between the Washington
Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, one of the most symbolic
stretches of turf in the United States.
And that's the scaled-back version of Mr. St. Florian's original
Arriving at a memorial to the good war, in which 400,000 Americans
died and 16 million Americans served in uniform, has so far been an
endlessly drawn-out, nasty affair. It has been 14 years since the
idea for a memorial was first brought up in Congress in 1987. The
proposal has been in the approval process longer than it took to
defeat Hitler. But this has not forestalled accusations that
powerful supporters, without providing adequate public
notification, deviously exploited the system to push through the
site on the Mall rather than an adjacent site, at Constitution
Gardens, which had been the initially approved location. Detractors
are now suing in federal court to stop construction.
The major problem with putting the memorial on the Mall is that it
disrupts the link between monuments dedicated to the leaders of the
two defining events in the nation's history: the Revolution and the
Civil War. Never mind that the plan also breaks up a glorious open
space, laid out by the great landscape architect Frederick Law
Olmsted Jr., as an extension of Pierre L'Enfant's utopian plan for
Critics also assert that the 7.4-acre memorial project, which will
require the lowering and shrinking of the Mall's existing Rainbow
Pool, will make it difficult, if not impossible, for there ever to
be another gathering akin to Martin Luther King's 1963 rally.
Simply put, this is as close to sacred public ground as the nation
has - a space that itself memorializes America's history and
ideals. And even those who aren't reminded of Hitler's favorite
architect when they look at the design should still recognize a
sterile and insufficiently meaningful plan when they see it.
The question, of course, is, so what?
Mount Rushmore is camp.
Grant's Tomb is not. Which attracts more visitors? The new
sculpture of F.D.R. in a wheelchair, which has been added to the
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, is appalling
sculpture (it might have appalled him, too) but it satisfies a
current, humane agenda of dignifying the disabled through
association with the great man.
"Memory is never shaped in a vacuum, the motives of memory are
never pure," James E. Young, a historian of memorials, has
observed. Every era, he points out, constructs memorials to
inculcate its own priorities in succeeding generations.
And memorials are intended, even if not explicitly, to stimulate
some debate. Otherwise they aren't doing their job, which is to
keep the subjects memorialized on the public's front burner.
Arguments about Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial rekindled
discussions about that war and about the war's place in America's
memory, altering national perceptions in the process.
Even Henry Bacon's classical temple, the Lincoln Memorial,
dedicated in 1922, now revered like Ms. Lin's work, was delayed
because of protests that encapsulated national divisions of
opinion. Southern opponents of Lincoln didn't want it built.
Lincoln's supporters considered the architecture too pompous, and
they thought that that end of the Mall, at the time a swamp, was
unworthy of the Republic's savior.
This sort of controversy obviously isn't unique to the United
States. The recently finished Holocaust memorial in Vienna, by the
British sculptor Rachel Whiteread, also took years between
conception and completion. In that case the delay was due to Jewish
opposition to the design (an abstract library turned inside-out),
and to Austrian foot- dragging about putting in stone the
uncomfortable facts of national guilt.
The lag let opponents iron out various differences. Now everyone
in Vienna, or at least everyone willing to speak up, seems
satisfied with the results and says the project provoked useful
debate about what is still a topic that fastidious Austrians
generally consider in poor taste.
So where does art enter the picture?
Nathan Rapoport, responding
to criticism that his Warsaw Ghetto Monument, a realist sculpture
of dead and battling Jews, was inadequate to the enormity of its
subject, asked, rhetorically: "Could I have made a rock with a hole
in it and said, `Voila! The heroism of the Jewish people'?" Neither
abstraction nor realism, he realized, was going to be universally
acceptable as a style for memorializing the uprising.
Tastes differ. Taste can be a convenient excuse for protesting a
monument whose subject it is otherwise taboo to criticize. Also the
exercise of taste is a matter of authority. Both sides in the World
War II Memorial debate claim to speak for the veterans, as if
veterans were, in their taste, a monolithic group.
CENTURIES ago everything was different and simpler. Public art was
commissioned by kings, queens, popes and dukes, who answered to no
one. Great monuments expressed official taste, which was synonymous
with high art. Michelangelo's genius ensured that the Medicis would
be remembered after their death because his memorial to them in
Florence became a pilgrimage site for art lovers.
Democracy and the modern era altered all that. Official art in a
democracy requires consensus opinion, an aesthetic common
denominator. But, as Kirk Varnedoe, a curator at the Museum of
Modern Art, points out, "Modern art is about one person's vision
and the idea of a consensus vision is antithetical to it."
Consider van Gogh's "Starry Night." It was a quintessential work
of modern art because it was an eccentric vision. Only after
popular taste caught up with van Gogh did it become everyone's
The memorial quandary is not just a problem of consensus, however.
Modern artists love ambiguity and irony. Monument builders hate
ambiguity and irony. Maya Lin's Vietnam War memorial, being an
ambiguous work of abstraction, is the exception to the rule and it
depends on our national ambiguity toward that war, an exceptional
Moreover, when modern artists make monuments they mostly make
anti-monuments: Claes Oldenburg's giant sculptures of clothespins
and lipsticks imply that what we share today as a society is no
longer a set of common ideals but a bunch of everyday household
objects and consumer desires.
"The notion of a modern monument," the critic Lewis Mumford wrote
63 years ago, "is a contradiction in terms. If it is a monument, it
is not modern, and if it is modern, it cannot be a monument."
So is it really any surprise that an official monument to the most
unambiguous of modern wars should be regarded by so many people as
such a lousy work of modern art?
BUT why should it matter? In the end, because great art outlasts
historical memory. George Bernard Shaw predicted he would someday
appear as an encyclopedia entry: Shaw, George Bernard, the subject
of a bust by Rodin.
"Art has the capacity to transcend history that history doesn't
have by itself," Mr. Varnedoe adds, meaning that great art's
inexhaustible fascination causes people to want to return to it, to
be in its presence, long after the events that prompted the artist
to make the work join 1066 and 1848 as dry facts in high school
Great art is of course always hard to come by. Good art would
suffice. The pity is that the veterans of World War II, who deserve
something commensurate to their sacrifice, will be remembered by
such a forgettable memorial.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company