26 April 2010

Making Modern Memorials

Sociologist Nathan Glazer explains in an essay about the National Mall in Washington, D.C., titled "Monuments, Modernism, and the Mall", what the deal is with toilets, giant clothespins, and wasted heaps of metal. Presented here is a section of that essay, taken from an anthology, The National Mall: Rethinking Washington's Monumental Core, edited by Mr. Glazer himself and Cynthia R. Fields. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

There are many traditional forms and emblems that are not yet, I would think, exhausted and do serve to communicate something to people. In any case, the new forms of modern art and modernism either have their own kitschy meaning, like flat roofs or metal beams agonizing with each other, or mean nothing at all. Perhaps the sophisticates can distinguish one construction of beans from another, one set of whorled metal sheets from another, so that one might mean triumph and another defeat, but most of us can't and are left to say, "Huh?"
    I find an exquisite summary of the dilemma of modernism and memorials in a 1992 book by Harriet Senie, Contemporary Public Sculpture: Tradition, Transformation, and Controversy. In the two first sentences, she writes: "The problems endemic to public art in a democracy begin with its definition. How can something be public (democratic) and art (elitist)?" The implicit and taken-for-granted assumption is that art must be elitist and therefore will be incomprehensible to a democratic public. What a strange, what a modern, assumption! Would Michaelangelo or Bernini or Lutyens have ever had such a thought? They would not have contemplated such a thought not because their publics were better educated than we are today (they might have been) but because they took it for granted that they were distinguished from their fellows by their skill and genius, not by their assumptions and values and ideals.
    One way the contemporary artist overcomes the problem is by turning his or her art into a joke. So on the dust jacket of the book Contemporary Public Sculpture, one will see an enormous clothespin erected in front of the huge Philadelphia City hall, which was built in Second Empire style. The sculpture is by Claes Oldenburg, who has proposed many such modern monuments and built a few. Alexander Calder's mobiles and stabiles are gentler jokes. One can see one on the west side of the National Museum of American History, a homage to Gwendolyn Cafritz, a benefactor of Washington art. This will work to some extent; it will not work, however, for a serious monument or memorial to note events or people that we do not consider matters for amusement.

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