Friday, August 26, 2011

How not to build a memorial

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, long in the works, finally opened in DC the other day. And while I obviously haven't seen it in person, if the pictures I've seen are any indication, it, well, kinda blows. The guy looks furious! Somewhere between his steely gaze and his arms-crossed, don't-screw-with-me posture, the whole thing radiates "non-violent protest" less than it conveys that King is about break heads until Montgomery desegregates its bus system.

The Times agrees. It published a long "Memorial Review" yesterday, which spent a while dancing around the subject but ultimately found itself unable to avoid the truth:
And the mound’s isolation from any other tall objects, its enormity and Dr. King’s posture all conspire to make him seem an authoritarian figure, emerging full-grown from the rock’s chiseled surface, at one with the ancient forces of nature, seeming to claim their authority as his. You don’t come here to commune with him, let alone to attend to the ideas the memorial’s Web site insists are latent here: “democracy, justice, hope and love.” You come to tilt your head back and follow; he, clearly, has his mind elsewhere.

It is difficult to know precisely why all this went wrong, or why this memorial never alludes to the fundamental theme of Dr. King’s life, equal treatment for American blacks. It strives for a kind of ethereal universality, while opposing forces pull it in another direction.
And as the Times notes, the boneheadedness of the King memorial seems to be part of a larger trend:
Many recent memorials proliferating along the Mall have trivialized or mischaracterized their subjects. The World War II memorial seems almost phony, with its artificial allusions to antiquity; the Roosevelt Memorial diminishes that president and even implies that he was a pacifist (featuring his words “I hate war”) instead of a wartime leader responsible for building up the “arsenal of democracy.” Why shouldn’t Dr. King, too, be misread — turning the minister into a warrior or a ruler, as if caricaturing or trying too hard to resemble his company on the Mall?
I haven't seen the Roosevelt memorial in years, but I agree that the WWII memorial is quite stupid.

The thing is, all this misguided memorializing has a pretty obvious cause: it's the socially conservative opposition to modern or abstract art.

Complex past events and figures, almost by definition, are going to trigger a diverse range of memories and emotional responses from different people. That's how historical memory works. So while some people may remember King as an imposing figure, standing resolute over modern America, others view him as a kind and benevolent force for good. And still others see him as a flawed man who helped undo a very evil system. None of these viewpoints is incorrect, and a successful memorial would find some way to incorporate them all.

That's hard to do when your memorial must include a statue of the personage in question. I suppose the artist could strive for a Mona Lisa-style ambiguity of affect. But the process of chiseling a person into stone usually only makes them more one-dimensional.

Modern art, by contrast, is basically designed to create an interpretive, personalized experience. What you take away from a piece of a abstract art is highly dependent on what you bring into it. As such, it is ideal for memorials and monuments.

Exhibit A: the Vietnam Wall, DC's most effective memorial. The Wall doesn't tell us what to think about Vietnam (if it did, it would be a certain failure, given the disagreement over that war) but people flock to it, and are deeply moved by it, anyway. (Sidebar: I suspect that the initial backlash to the Wall's strange design is largely to blame for the current mediocrity of DC memorials.)

Exhibit B: The Holocaust memorial in Berlin. This is actually the most emotionally affecting memorial I've ever seen. It's hard to describe, so I've added a picture. But the amazing thing about the Holocaust memorial is how malleable it is. It variously looks like grave stones, box cars, or coffins.


It gets much deeper towards the middle. Down in the center, the memorial forms an accidental maze, where it's easy to get separated from companions. That's an unnerving experience, because while you're not lost, people tend to cut in and out of your vision unexpectedly.


I've made it sound completely depressing, but it's not -- just somber and disorienting. And children are allowed to play around the edges, and do -- climbing the stones and jumping from one to the next. It's an amazing experience, but more importantly, it's a different experience for everyone who goes.

No one's ever going to say that about the King memorial. The King memorial isn't a place for reflection at all. It just tells us "This guy was important." It's propaganda.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with this post but would like to add that there is probably a degree of risk aversion to it as well.

    If you make an abstract memorial and it sucks, then people will hate it.

    If you make a more literal memorial and it sucks, the people will hate it, but will at least acknowledge that it looks like MLK

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