Bayou Calvinist

A Somewhat Eclectic Discussion by a Law Student Concerning All of Today's Major Topics, as well as, a Few Not So Major Topics

Friday, August 12, 2005

Monumental Reflections

A great article in today's Daily Standard got me thinking about what monuments and memorials represent.

Obviously the look, meaning and interpretation of monuments are greatly shaped by the time period in which they are built. An obvious example is comparing the Vietnam War Memorial with the Iwo Jima Memorial. Being built after WWII during a time when America was optimistic and proud of its recent accomplishments, the Iwo Jima Memorial touts the courage and bravery of the American soldier. This is even spelled out on the base of the monument: "Uncommon valor was a common virtue." The Vietnam War Memorial, on the other hand, focuses on the great loss the country suffered; not specifically the bravery and valor of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. It clearly reflects the disaffection the country had with itself and specifically its military.

Designs have changed with the times as well. When Classical designs were in vogue (especially in the late 19th Century when American Empire was on the move) the monuments were made in the classical mold. When minimalist modernism has been more fashionable, the monuments have followed suit (again see Vietnam and to a lesser extent the FDR and Korean War Memorials). The WWII memorial is more in the classical style than its nearest predecessors (in tune with the times), but the spacing suggests a larger intent of its place within its surroundings (specifically it was caused by activists who didn't wish the view between the Washington and Lincoln Memorials to be obstructed--again in tune with the times).


Also interesting is the events and people we have chosen to memorialize; and what these choices tell us about ourselves. In the case of memorials dedicated to politicians, often the political party in charge at the time determines who it wishes to lionize. Even those legendary figures we now see as demi-god-like were at one point in time disliked by large portions of American society. With the exception of the Washington memorial all other politicians had to wait for their heirs apparent to regain power before they were to be frozen in time (Lincoln with the Republican controlled governments of the early 20th Century, FDR with the Democratic controlled government of the early 1990's). Unfortunately these monuments often become more about making political statements than about the actual individuals they purport to represent. With FDR's memorial complete it is little wonder that Republicans now want a monument to Reagan. Don't get me wrong I respect both men and think they both deserve a memorial of some kind, but does that memorial necessarily have to compete against the opposing party's latest addition to the production line of monuments?

Each person, despite (and some times in spite) of the creator's intent will take away what they want from each monument. Someone proud of their service in Vietnam might not see that memorial as a comment on the war's hopelessness. Instead they see it as a source of pride and honor (honor and pride for their fallen comrades, maybe). The monuments also shape how we see people and events from the past. How can one who has seen the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi frozen in bronze not picture that famous landmark when they hear the refrains of the Marine Corps Hymn. Or who is able to imagine Lincoln without at some point picturing him seated just as he is at his memorial. Memorials and monuments are strange things...like art they are both shaped and shape those who build and experience them. But unlike some art they are accessible to nearly everyone.

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