Michael Kimmelman’s justifiable distress at the paucity of elevating contemporary monuments “Turning Memory Into Travesty” (NY Times, Ideas & Trends, March 4, 2001) does not look closely enough at the reasons for the success and power of some and the reasons for failure of the vast majority of such edifices. The works of a young architecture student Maya Lin, and a recogized postmodern sculptor Rachel Whiteread have become powerful statements for almost unstateable and unspeakable events, while hundreds of other such attempts at remembrance and honor languish in silent anonymity.
First, both Lin and Whiteread had the sense and took the time to consider the meanings and feelings evoked by the singular events of the Vietnam War and the holocaust. Second, they were able to bring deep sensitivity to the potential reactions, responses and reflections (thoughts) of ordinary viewers who in both instances have to interact in very deep ways with the meaning, presence and form of the wall and the large cement inside-out ”library.”
Many contemporary artists and architects have difficulty reading the meanings of events to be memorialized or are intent only upon extending the separatist traditions of modern sculpture and architecture. Most public art in the last four decades has served the purposes of high aesthetics. Richard Serra tilted his Arc at the workers and pedestrians of the GSA Plaza without so much as a how do you do to their space. Serving two masters: the general public; and the arbiters of aesthetics has been accomplished by both Lin and Whiteread, as it has been by some of the greatest artists of the past. The isolation of artists and architects from public purposes, through their “professional” education, a pervasive ethos of “art for its own sake,” and perhaps too much time spent with the self in the isolation of the studio are contingencies for the kinds of “travesties” of memorial works Kimmelman points to. Attention just to “great art,” however, will not suffice for future monument designers. They must take into account the history in which they are embedded and which they help to construct through their work.