Ideas and Trends: Turning Memory Into Travesty (The New York Times)

By Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times

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 idea. 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 the city.

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 dream.

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 situation.

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 textbooks.

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