Monuments -- To What? Public art takes a beating
A monument casts bygone events in bronze, brass, limestone; it renders past heroes as living symbols.Skip to next paragraph
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It is, in short, a visual document of frozen passions.
In politics, however, that freezing process may take eons.
The Washington Monument was finished a century after the Revolutionary War. Lincoln's and Jefferson's memorials were completed in the 1920's and '40's. Time had tempered emotions before we saw their legacy in stone.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, whose 140 pilings now lie buried in Constitution Gardens, awaiting their granite markers, has had no such tempering time.
Even as Tennessee workers chisel into the memorial the names of the 57,692 veterans who died in the war, those who still have heated feelings about the conflict are again stirring controversy in Washington over the form of the monument.
A little more than three years ago, Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs founded the committee that sponsored the competition for a memorial to his forgotten peers.
The winner was a 21-year-old Yale student, Maya Ying Lin, who had designed a classically simple chevron of thick granite walls, each some 200-feet long, ascending from 10 feet below the ground on the mall near the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
''Walking through this park, the memorial appears as a rift in the earth -- a long, polished black stone wall, emerging from and receding into the earth,'' she wrote of her design.
Within the grassy site contained by the walls of the memorial, the viewer could barely make out the carved names, but ''these names, seemingly infinite in number, convey the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying those individuals into a whole,'' the statement read.
Paying deference to the mall as well as the veterans, Lin's ''place of healing'' was grand, yet submerged -- black not white, retiring not pompous, and neither morbid nor vaingloriously martial.
Created by an apolitical young woman to whom the war was not even a memory, the abstract design did not so much lack passion as rise above it. From its scooped site it was to enwrap the viewer like two palms -- a quiet, winged form, paying the ultimate compliment of bowing to the moment of controversy and paying deference to a site of overwhelming importance.
Despite such niceties of design, the memorial's aesthetics entered the arena of politics. Hostile forces called its incline a pit and the somber granite a ''dark hole of Calcutta.''
Secretary of the Interior James Watt was persuaded to demand a tributary soldier and a flag.
Now a second committee, staffed by veterans with no fine-arts expertise, has been gathered to decide on these appendages.
Scruggs is confident that their choice of a flag and soldier to stand before the structure will be appropriate.
''It will be done with the same concern and attention to detail that was created in our design competition,'' he insists. ''This is not going to be any kind of bizarre configuration of statuary, no kind of corny thing.''
Others who have seen the competing entries for contest No. 1 can only disagree. The flag-over-Iwo-Jima style of Felix de Weldon -- sculpture able to simulate the historic mode -- was notably absent, as witnesses to some of the ludicrous entries that competed with Lin's abstract winner can attest.
Time may lie with those who favor Lin's quiet remembering, nonetheless.