The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials
The following is adapted from a lecture delivered on March 2, 2012, at Hillsdale College by Michael J. Lewis, Professor of Art, Williams College, which I found to be very interesting and hope you will also. It is long so I am breaking it up into two posts. It is well worth the read.
“This has been an extraordinary year for American monuments. The memorial at Ground Zero opened last September in New York. One month later came the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial here in Washington, and soon to come to Washington, or perhaps not, is the memorial to President Eisenhower, which is to be a collaboration between architect Frank Gehry and sculptor Charles Ray. Each of these has been the subject of furious controversy, especially those in Washington.
“The King Memorial was criticized for engaging a sculptor from Communist China, who saw to it that Chinese rather than American granite was used for the structure, which accounts for its “Made in china” inscription. Even worse, the memorial managed to misquote the great man. Not only did he not say, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” but his actual words were a hypothetical statement put in someone else’s mouth. Worse still is the demeanor and expression of the sculpture. King was above all an orator, and in photographs he is invariably open in stance, speaking, gesturing, demonstrating, with his energy directed outward. Yet in the monument he is depicted with arms folded, utterly detached. Instead of inspiring warmth, there is the infinite aloofness of an idol.
“The proposed Eisenhower Monument has been criticized on opposite grounds. Instead of making its subject a 30-foot effigy, it turns him into a diminutive country boy. In an outdoor public space that is part formal civic plaza and part wooden urban park, columns in the background will support a wire mesh screen depicting images of the Kansas prairie of Eisenhower’s childhood. And at the center will be the sculpture of Eisenhower as a dreamy country boy “looking out onto his future achievements”, an unconventional depiction, given that there were millions of dreamy country boys and only one Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War Two.
“As different as the King and Eisenhower memorials are, the public’s dismay in each instance has the same cause. These aren’t the men we knew. It is not easy, of course, to make a succinct statement in sculptural form of the essence of a man’s life. It is something American art has always struggled with, especially in our chronic divided loyalty between realism and idealism. But this is the least of the problems with the Eisenhower and King memorials. They fail fundamentally as monuments, not because they misunderstand the nature of their subjects, but because they misunderstand what a monument is, or should be.
“As traditionally understood, a monument is the expression of a single powerful idea in a single emphatic form, in colossal scale and in permanent materials, made to serve civic life. (Materials and size distinguish monuments from memorials, of which monuments are a subset.) But I suspect that if Frank Gehry were asked to define a monument, he would say something to the effect that a monument is not a thing but a process, an open-ended conversation in which various constituencies bring different interpretations to different forms. I have heard versions of this definition for decades. And it is simply not good enough.
“The spontaneous roadside memorials that mark the site of fatal traffic accidents are a relatively new phenomenon. As physical objects they are ephemera, but as a mass cultural phenomenon they are quite extraordinary, and they testify to a deep human need for memorials. It is a new form of folk art, and it is extremely conventionalized in its expression. For one thing, its repertoire of forms and materials is very narrow; crosses, flowers, hand-painted signs, and heartbreakingly, in the case of a child, stuffed animals. There is very little else, and no striving for originality. Their creators look for widely understood symbols, and they yearn for resolution and closure, they certainly do not aspire to an open-ended process.
“In a way, these anonymous roadside sculptors understand what many contemporary artists do not, that monuments, because they are public art forms, must be legible. And this requires a great degree of convention. Thus most traditional monuments are paraphrases of a few ancient types; the triumphal arch, the temple, the colossal column, and the obelisk. Since the 1930s, it has been fashionable to disparage this as architectural grave-robbing, and to argue that we should create our own forms.
“But these forms are timeless, not simply ancient. After all, the arch is nothing more than a space of passage, made monumental; an obelisk or column is the exclamation point raised above a sacred spot; and a temple is a tabernacle, the sacred tent raised over an altar. These ideas are permanent, and it is not surprising that the one successful work of contemporary public art, the Vietnam Memorial, took its form from one of the most ancient, the mural shrine, the wailing wall.
“It is because of their ability to transcend time by connecting to primal human activities; passage, gathering, shelter, that the best monuments never look dated.
To be continued….
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