Conclusion to The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials
Conclusion to the lecture, The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials”, by Michael J. Lewis, Professor of Art at Williams College.
“The problem, as Emily Post knows, is that there are situations too serious to trust to improvisation. There are moments when a convention is required and cannot be imnproved on; the polite inquiry, “How are you?”, the statement of congratulation, “I wish you the best,” the statement of condolence, “I am sorry for your loss.” These are not trite platitudes, but social obligations that are ritual actions. Social interaction requires social conventions. People who do not use conventional sayings, such as “I am sorry for your loss,” run the danger of saying something inappropriate, “Well, at least he’s out of his misery,” or “My uncle had the same form of tumor,” or “Bummer.” If you trust to your own originality, all you can be sure of is that whatever inappropriate notion is bobbing along at the surface of your unconscious will be blurted out.
“As it is with social etiquette, so it is with memorials. An artist who sweeps away the traditional conventions for dealing with the great truths of life, death, and sacrifice, can only shuffle about in the cupboard of his own store of mental images. Such was the fate of Eric Fischl, the first artist who tried to make monumental art out of 9/11, a colossal bronze that he called “Falling Woman.”
“On 9/11, the most agonizing images were those of the trapped workers in the towers, their backs to the inferno, who leapt to their deaths. But unlike the Vietnam Memorial, which succeeds because it says, in the simplest terms possible, “I am sorry for your loss”, “Falling Woman” trusted to improvisation. Rather than “I am sorry for your loss,” it says, “I cannot get this out of my mind.” Ultimately it is not public art at all, but private indulgence.
“In the end, the Ground Zero Memorial was not as bad as that but not as good as it should have been. The key decision was to maintain the footprints of the vanished towers, which means that its dominant gesture is the collapse of the buildings and not the lives within. If it has something of the laconic restraint of the Vietnam Memorial, this is to be expected, as Maya Lin played a prominent role on the jury. An urban version of her landscape memorial, it has the same sense of void and absence, the same minimalism and austerity. In one respect, though, it fails to achieve the spatial resolution of the Vietnam Memorial. At the latter the names are in order of death, and have a kind of implacable sad rhythm. Obviously this could not be done at Ground Zero, so the names there are placed according to a random computer-generated sequence. Let me propose a rule, in a real monument, there must be nothing random or computer-generated.
“Returning to the monuments that have been so controversial in Washington recently, the Eisenhower project is scarcely a memorial, let alone a monument. Its principal object, the sculpture of Eisenhower as a farm boy, is far smaller than the colossal backdrops that surround him. It will be these images, abstract depictions of the Kansas countryside and photographic images of Eisenhower’s life which provide the dominant visual note. Lost and adrift somewhere in this theme park of billboards and fragmented colonnades is Eisenhower himself, diminished and bewildered. To ask one obvious question: What does this have to say about the guiding spirit of D-Day? Clearly Gehry was ill at ease with the martial subject matter, which is why his central image shows Eisenhower “looking out over his future achievements” and doesn’t spell out to future generations of Americans what those achievements were.
“As for the King Memorial, the most common charge is that it recalls the despotic sculpture of Leninist-Maoist regimes, with their avuncular but stern “dear leaders.” The sculptor has spent his entire life in such a culture, and it is to be expected that his design would be accused of being a surrogate Chairman Mao image. And to be sure, there is something imperious and implacable about the face of King, a kind of lithis ruthlessness. It certainly seems fiercer than that of our other national martyr to civil rights, Abraham Lincoln. But I would propose that the difference is not such between American and Chinese character and ideas, although those are at play, but between granite and marble. king is carved out of the former, a dense stone with a crystalline structure that is carved with the greatest of difficulty, forcing a language of sharp lines, flat planes, and generalized roundness. The marble from which Lincoln is carved is far more supple, permitting softer modeling. When one looks at King, with double lines delineating eyes, lips, and nose, one realizes this is the most primal sculptural language of all, that of ancient Egypt.
“But there is a far greater problem with the King Memorial. Its overall conception was inspired by a line from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which promises that together we will build” out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” So we see depicted a Mountain of Despair and a Stone of Hope. The whole ensemble is a kind of visual diagram of King’s metaphor, with the Stone of Hope moved forward as neatly as a pawn advancing on a chessboard. In other words, just as the Korean War Veterans Memorial reduced its human figures to symbols of the 38th Parallel, here King is reduced to an illustration of his wordplay. A figure of speech is beautiful because it calls to mind a mental picture; but to build a scale model of a word picture is to do it violence, and to render laughable in reality what is beautiful in the imagination.
“The King Memorial runs perilously close to being not a monument at all, but a book illustration, the visual diagram of ideas generated elsewhere. But it is a good index of where we stand today when it comes to the building of monuments. Allegory requires an imaginative act, and is literary, whereas our culture is uncomfortable with figurative language. This began around 1977, the moment the language censors began to attack phrases like “Man does not live on bread alone,” asking “What about women?” A painful literalism set in, which is hostile to figurative language in speech and and to abstract allegory in art. Nowadays we tend to think literally rather than literarily, which explains why Frederick Hart had to portray the American military experience in Vietnam by means of three men of three distinct races, and why a women’s memorial was subsequently added. The fear of leaving someone or something out is hostile to the allegorical impulse, which seeks not to itemize but to generalize, and to speak not specific truths but great truths. It is not surprising that a culture ill at ease with the notion of absolute truth would find it very difficult to make monuments that show urgency and conviction.
“What can we do about this? First, we can recognize that it is possible to make a convincing monument with the means of modern architecture. Eero Saarinen showed that it could be done with his Gateway Arch at St. Louis.
“An exquisite portal that opens to the west, it is our version of a Roman triumphal arch. it is abstract, but its visual logic is direct and persuasive, showing that modern materials and forms are not incapable of suggesting timeless ideas. Second, we can recognize that it is not too late. Just because a world-famous architect has submitted a design does not oblige us to build it. Third, we can remember that greatness is possible. For more than a century and a half, we built monuments with spectacular success. We have only been building them badly for a generation. I look at these recent designs, which are perhaps an honest reflection of our divided and uncertain culture, and can’t help but think we can do better once more.” Michael J. Lewis
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