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The Decline of American Monuments

As we look forward to our May 18 discussion panel on “Monumental Fights: The Role of Memorials in Civic Life” (register at the link) with the National Civic Art Society, we will be showcasing essays on the subject to help us prepare for the discussion. Today’s selection is by panelist and Williams College professor of art Michael J. Lewis, who writes on “The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials” in this month’s Imprimis.

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Upcoming event: Monumental Fights

Over the past year, the recently dedicated Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Memorial and the planned Eisenhower Memorial have renewed controversy about the meaning and purpose of public memorials. What do America’s memorials and monuments tell us about our nation and our identity as citizens? How should we memorialize past events and individuals? In this event, co-sponsored by the Program on American Citizenship and the National Civic Art Society, a distinguished panel will address these questions and comment on the MLK and Eisenhower memorials.

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Sizing Up America’s Memorials

Joining a long line of criticism of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial–finally dedicated a couple of weeks ago after Hurricane Irene delayed the ceremony–Jack Carlson (Clarendon Scholar at Oxford University) and Eric Wind (National Civic Art Society) have penned another critique of the monument. Writing in the American Thinker, the duo go beyond most other criticism (which tends to focus on the poor execution and lack of realism of the monument) and argue that one reason the memorial fails is its complete break from Classical antiquity: “for the idea of a ‘monument’ (from the Latin monumentum) as it has come to us, and in the built environment of Washington, DC, in particular, is classical.”

“It is not closed-mindedness,” they continue, “that compels us to suggest that the King and Eisenhower Memorial designs are inapt: the tradition of public contribution followed by public recognition in this way was virtually unique to ancient Greece and Rome, and it is bound up inextricably with our own nation’s architectural, political and cultural heritage. It is this tradition that we have received, and the classical idiom remains the lexis by which we are able to engage with honorific monuments…The hallowed built environment of our National Mall mirrors our nation’s heritage, history and highest ambitions.”

Carlson and Wind don’t mention that one of the most popular memorials on the National Mall is the decidedly anti-Classicist Vietnam War Memorial. However, they are right to point out that a thoughtful discussion is in order about what, exactly, the purpose of memorializing events and people is–and whether a link to or bifurcation of our shared past is necessary to properly memorialize anything. In a thoughtful article in Commentary in 2001 (when it was the World War II Memorial that was attracting all the controversy), Michael J. Lewis made a similar point.

In discussing the flurry of (disappointing) memorials that were built after the success of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Wall, Lewis identifies the problem somewhat differently than Carlson and Wind–as a failure to think allegorically:

The fear of leaving someone or something out is hostile to the allegorical impulse, which seeks not to itemize but to generalize, and to speak not specific truths but great truths. Without allegory, however, it is difficult to make a memorial truly monumental.

At first glance, this critique (levied mainly at the  FDR  monument) seems at odds with many of those of the MLK Memorial: the latter, it is argued, is too metaphorical, showing a poor resemblance of the civil-rights leader emerging from a giant rock (the “Stone of Hope”)–itself cut from the “Mountain of Despair”–with arms folded, in a Socialist Realist style.

This would be missing the point. Carlson and Wind–and Lewis–aren’t arguing for allegory-for-its-own-sake, but rather for an allegorical connection to something real: like the actual Martin Luther King, Jr., or our shared past of looking to antiquity for wisdom. Indeed, as Lewis writes, “in some cases, it must be said, no allegory at all would have been preferable to the simplistic and hackneyed symbolism with which we are confronted.” Here, Lewis is talking about the Korean War Memorial, but the criticism could just as easily apply to the MLK statue.

This, in fact, shows precisely why the Vietnam War Memorial is so successful: its allegory was real and exceptional. Its minimalist restraint, its unfamiliar and unsettling form, its polished black granite that disappeared on either end into the earth was, in Lewis’s words, “the war itself, overwhelming and incomprehensible.” The Wall fits and describes its subject in a way that the MLK memorial simply doesn’t do.

The next memorial to be built on our National Mall, for Dwight D. Eisenhower, is planned to consist of a modernist collection of 80-foot-tall concrete columns and stainless steel mesh screens. Wind’s National Civic Art Society has opposed this design and has hosted a competition for a counter-proposal using more Classical elements. Regardless of what the Memorial turns out to be, Carlson and Wind and others should be complimented for their efforts to spark a conversation about how we as a nation want to commemorate and memorialize our national heroes.

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