The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials Part 2
“John Russell Pope’s Jefferson Memorial does not make us think of 1940, but of Jefferson. It does this with its shape. To commemorate the author of the Declaration of Independence, Pope chose the most perfect of all forms, the sphere, a physical manifestation of the clarity of Jefferson’s mind.
“How different is the Lincoln Memorial, a foursquare citadel; here the theme is heroic fortitude, a cincture of closely spaced columns, huddled together about the windowless central shrine, expressing endurance.
“Different again is the monument to George Washington, a vehement founding gesture, a single bold mark against the sky. For this, the model was that greatest of architectural point-markers, the Egyptian obelisk.
“Although Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial was roundly condemned for its radical innovations, the use of black granite rather than white marble, the stress on a void rather than a positive presence, the violent scar it seemed to make on the earth, it nonetheless presented the profoundly traditional image of a stone tablet inscribed with the names of the dead.
“Perhaps Lin’s most poetic gesture was how she solved the problem of how to list some 58,000 names. It was determined that they should appear in order of the date of death rather than alphabetically, but she did not simply start at one end in 1959 and continue on to 1975; instead she began and ended the timeline in the center, at the vertex, so that the name of the last to die would touch the name of the first. Here she gave the monument a point of resolution, the point where things begin and end, transforming the linear timeline into something cyclical and regenerative, thus making its central point a kind of altar.
“Not long ago it was fashionable to sneer at these things. Frank Lloyd Wright found the Jefferson Memorial preposterous for its archaic expression. But true monumentality has little to do with style and everything to do with simplicity and grandeur of expression. Rodin, asked to define sculpture, supposedly said that it is what results when you roll a statue down the steps, that is, when everything extraneous breaks off. The word for a style of extremely loconic expression is “lapidary,” which comes from the Latin word lapis, or stone. This was the Roman term for the verbal compression necessary when one is carving an inscription in stone. And like the inscriptions they bear, the best of monuments are lapidary. They show a splendid economy of expression in saying one thing, and saying it monumentally.
“A structure that offers a single great lesson is a monument; one that offers many facts and anecdotes is a school or museum. And when it offers too many, it becomes preachy, as happened with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington. Designed by Lawrence Halprin, it provides a sequence of four outdoor rooms, representing FDR’s four terms. Each presents a visual tableau, lavishly outfitted with bronze statues, relief sculptures, and carved inscriptions. For example, the first term is dramatized with a vignette of a Depression-era breadline, and the second with a vignette of an American listening to one of Roosevelt’s fireside chats.
“Throughout the memorial runs an insistent literalism, with nothing rendered abstractly or symbolically. It is a kind of cross-pollination of a diorama with a Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Even FDR’s dog Fala is pantingly immortalized in bronze.
“During the design process, anti-smoking groups succeeded in eliminating Roosevelt’s ubiquitous cigarette holder. Evidently Halprin and his collaborators did not recognize that Roosevelt’s cigarette holder ws not the sign of a lamentable addiction, but the president’s most effective visual prop. He clenched it in his teeth with his jaw thrust forward so that it pointed upwards jauntily, to create an image of buoyant and unshakeable optimism. At the same time, pressure from activist groups for the disabled ensured that FDR would be depicted as wheelchair-bound and handicapped with polio, a fact he carefully suppressed in all public appearances. So the element he flaunted was eliminated, the element he concealed was stressed, and the rakish and jaunty cavalier was transformed into a differently-abled and rather prim non-smoker. I can’t help but think that Roosevelt himself was much more gifted in creating inspiring visual imagery than the makers of his monument.
“Monuments and memorials today are discursive, sentimental, addicted to narrative literalism, and asking to be judged on good intentions rather than visual coherence. This change began, ironically, with a critique of the over-wrought memorials of the Victorian era. In reaction, the first generation of modern architects decided that we needed an entirely different vocabulary of monuments. So when modernism went about dislodging the structures of traditional society, culture, religion, and the political and social order, it also began dispensing with the arches and columns that paid tribute to that order. This was not easy, however, because modernism was concerned with the future and monuments are retrospective.
“One possibility for those rejecting traditional monuments was to eschew technology and turn to the earth itself. The movement known as Earth Art came of age in the late 1960s, and the Vietnam Memorial arose from it, shaping the earth through mounds and embankments. But as great as that memorial was, it was to have a strange effect on the building of subsequent monuments, and not at all the effect one might have expected. Because of the furious reception of Maya Lin’s design, now forgotten because of the memorial’s ultimate success, a figural sculpture was added at the last minute, the sculpture known as “Fighting Men” by the late Frederick Hart.
“It depicts a trio of combat infantrymen returning from patrol, grim, weary, and drenched to the skin. If your taste is for realistic figural sculpture, Hart’s are the best.
“But then something curious happened. Hart made a point of depicting a black, a white, and a Hispanic, but not a female soldier. So shortly thereafter, plans were made for yet a third memorial, this time to honor the women who died in Vietnam. The sculptor, Glenna Goodacre, skillfully paraphrased the Pieta, the wounded soldier reposes like the dead Christ on the nurse’s lap, and in place of the billowing skirts of Michelangelo’s Madonna there is a pyramid of sandbags. But there is a problem in the math. Hart’s three soldiers represent some 58,000 dead men, while Goodacre’s three soldiers represent the seven women who died. We are approaching the point, that, where we are not dealing in symbolism but literalism, a straight one-to-one representation. And this, regrettable, is the ultimate lesson of the Vietnam Memorial. While America’s most progressive artists openly mocked Hart’s “Fighting Men” for its backward-looking realism, when it came time to propose their own monuments, fashionable designers preferred easygoing literalism to the sublime abstraction of Maya Lin.
“Consider the Korean War Veterans Memorial, authorized by Congress in 1988 and designed by Frank Gaylord. Here too the subject is a platoon on patrol, in this case 19 bronze soldiers trudging heavily
uphill. It was originally intended to depict not 19 but 38 soldiers, the reference being to the 38th Parallel along which the war pivoted. In the end the number was halved, presumably for budget reasons, with the explanation that it would be doubled by the reflecting mirror: 19 x 2 = 38. here is an utter misunderstanding of the means and ends of allegory. Normally, allegory uses interlocking symbols to comment on the things we care about, truth, honor, sacrifice. Here it is inverted. Something that really matters, human lives, are being used to represent an accident of military geography, the 38th Parallel.
“Why is it that the language of allegory, once generally understood by our culture as a whole, has been banished from our nation’s sacred sites so completely that one needs to spot naive roadside memorials to find unambiguous statements of frief and love? I believe it has to do with the conviction that became widespread in the 1960s, that we do not need etiquette, but rather honesty. The mantra of that era, “Tell it like it is,” encouraged us to speak from the heart, to improvise. And if the improvisation faltered, as improvisations often do, then stumbling inarticulateness could be taken as a badge of sincerity.”
Join me tomorrow for the closing. It is very thought provoking to contemplate the artistic image of our heroes and significant events which define their time for future generations.
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