The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials

09 May

The latest edition of Hillsdale College’s Imprimis arrived yesterday and Michael J. Lewis offers a thought provoking discussion about how Americans no longer make meaningful Monuments.  I happen to agree.  It’s a very good read about how modern American artists eschew the old symbols in favor of modernism and political correctness.

It’s really worth the time to read the whole thing.

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.

Personally, I don’t care for the Vietnam Memorial, because it doesn’t honor the slain as much as it appears to me to be a big black scar of national shame and a statement that no war is worth its cost.  But that’s just my reaction to it, I guess.  I know that many Nam Vets have rallied around it, but I don’t remember it being very popular when it was first unveiled.

Lewis goes on to state that we’ve lost the literary for the literal in our Memorials, pointing to Franklink Delano Roosevelt’s Memorial (which I have seen), comparing it to “a cross pollenization of a diorama with a Madame Tussaud’s wax museum”.

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 was 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.

It really is a good analysis, clarifying what many of us feel in our gut, but can’t figure out what makes some Monuments work and others that don’t work.  The new(ish) World War II Memorial is very large, but not particularly moving.  The plans for the Dwight Eisenhower Memorial is an abomination and the project should either be scrapped or redesigned completely.

Pictures of all Monuments and Memorials discussed can be viewed here.



Posted by on May 9, 2012 in politics


6 responses to “The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials

  1. Pedro

    May 9, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    I agree with most of the commentary. However, the Vietnam Memorial is a very hallowed place for me. I have visited it countless times and it never fails to evoke emotion for me. I first visited it very late at night shortly after it was opened and I felt like I was walking among ghosts. That came not only from the memorial itself but from the collection of wounded souls that were milling around the fringe or openly weeping at the memorial itself. The items left in tribute were as telling as any memorial could possibly hope to convey. I love the place.

    • P. Henry Saddleburr

      May 9, 2012 at 5:39 pm

      On the Vietnam memorial, I think it BECAME a hallowed place, and has become accepted as a proper memorial over time. And that vets and families see the names of their friends on the wall causes attachment. And the shear number of names is humbling and disturbing.

      But I believe that the artist’s intention was to create a national ‘open flesh wound’, an anti-war statement, in black granite, between the Pentagon and the State Department, punctuated and personalized by the names of the 58,261 lives lost.

      Funny. I just now looked up Maya Lin, the Memorial’s designer and my reaction was correct. According to Wikipedia “Lin’s conception was to create an opening or a wound in the earth to symbolize the gravity of the loss of the soldiers.”

      I’m actually glad that the initial insult, or however you want to characterize it, has been superceded by the embrace it ended up receiving. Matter of fact, back in 2007 many of us assembled to protect the Wall, as there were threats that Code Pink had intentions of defacing it at their anti-war rally. Needless to say, the Code Pinkos were outnumbered significantly, with thousands showing up to provide protection.

  2. Saddlesore

    May 9, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Unfortunately, some of the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality has invaded the monument/memorial building process. Too many monuments debase the value just as too much currency leads to devaluation. I think there is an unforutnate aspect to this, in that each group wants its own memorial, separate and apart from others. I see a loss of national cohesion in this.

    However, I think the FDR memorial should never have been built. Almost all of DC and our politics (unfortunately) is a memorial to FDR, and that is quite enough.

    • P. Henry Saddleburr

      May 9, 2012 at 5:19 pm

      I agree about the quantity issue. Each new monument takes away value from the monuments that preceded it. The national mall is also a finite space and they just keep piling more and more stuff in it.

  3. Chillingworth

    May 10, 2012 at 10:35 am

    “And when it offers too many, it becomes preachy, as happened with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington.”

    Preachy is right. One silver lining (if I can call it that) is that if you read the many inscriptions there, you can catch FDR contradicting himself. (Apparently he was for government takeovers except when he wasn’t.)

    “Almost all of DC and our politics (unfortunately) is a memorial to FDR, and that is quite enough.”

    That’s a sobering thought.

    • Sandy Barretts

      October 30, 2012 at 5:18 pm

      Who doesn’t contradict himself if you take quotes out of context? (And even if words are not out of context, people still get to contradict themselves – depends on the circumstances, you know?)
      Also, the “almost all of DC…etc.” is baloney.


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