Thursday, August 14, 2008

Two Viewpoints on "The Wall"

One of my e-friends is Darrell Bohlsen, a retired art historian. We correspond about art and recently discussed a NY Times article about an economist who claims to have determined the "Top Ten" works of modern art based on how many times works appeared in art history books published between 1990 and 2005. We both agreed that was pretty silly for reasons I won't go into here but my friend decided to make his personal Top Ten list just for fun.

Today Darrell sent an email with his #1, The Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Maya Lin 1982. He wrote "Although the AIA (American Institute of Architects) has honored it as Architecture I consider it a memorial sculpture qualifying for my list."

"Ms Lin has come up with a concept (at age nineteen) of a war memorial that rejects the traditional Manneristic, larger than life, solutions of dictatorships. Think, Moscow-Soviet Union, China, Cuba, or Saddam Hussain's Irag. Indeed, think Washington DC with Frederick Hart's Korean Veterans War Memorial, adjacent to Ms Lin's work."

"Ms Lin's work with its delta shaped granite rising out of a depression in the earth sets the tone for meditation on war and its dark polished granite surfaces reflect the observer and his/her involvement. I have been to the monument four times and have always been moved. Moreover the people I observed there have been also. Most I assume have no formal association with Art."

He went on to detail the history of its "improvement" (not in his opinion) by the addition of two additional features both in the historical style and concluded by recommending "Should you visit the monument in the future I strongly suggest you follow the wishes of Ms Lin and first walk to the wooded knoll that faces the monument on the opposite side of the site and walk over it to the other side. Then turn around and experience what the designer intended by going back up and over and through the trees you will encounter this powerful sight of mother earth opening up and accepting her sons and daughters home."

I responded that his choice for #1 is interesting and thought provoking. Memorial, architecture or art? All three? I have not seen the original but I have seen the "Traveling Wall". As a Vietnam Era Vet with friends who went to Vietnam (I was notified I was going to go but the orders never came and I never asked where they were) "The Wall" has associations to me that overwhelm the mere form of the work. When I went to see the traveling version, art was not on my mind and I'm sure Darrell is correct in assuming that most who visit it have no formal association with art. They don't go to see art. They go because of what it represents in terms of personal loss, a friend, a child, a brother/sister, a father or mother, a wound on their soul.

I agree that a traditional "heroic" memorial would not have been appropriate. Those things are propaganda designed to make us feel good about the sacrifice of young lives to settle political disputes. It is refreshing that we finally rose above that tradition with "The Wall", putting the price of war ahead of the false glory, but pathetic that so many had to die to do it.

As an Army photographer I used to photograph the ceremonies in which they awarded medals, photos to be sent to hometown newspapers. It didn't take long for me to note that if the soldier was still living the Commanding General always awarded the medal. If the award was posthumous it got relegated to the Deputy Commander, a Colonel. The General never did those ones, the spineless (expletive deleted). Burned in my memory is one ceremony where the young widow and a small child of 2 or 3 got dragged out to the ranges for a ceremony in the field because someone thought it was an appropriate location for a posthumous award to an infantryman. As the 20 something widow balanced on her toes to keep her high heels from sinking into the sand and the Colonel was handing the widow a folded flag with medals pinned on it, the child was pulling on her skirt and asking "Where's Daddy?".

My friend Darrell explained that he feels that "The Wall" has aesthetic merit that will continue to attract many visitors even in future when those directly affected are gone. I'm sure he is right. Maybe someday I will be able to step back emotionally and examine The Wall objectively as a work of art, but not yet.

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