I’m about to put the Vietnam Veterans Memorial back in my attic-brain, but before I do, I want to consider monuments and memorials a bit longer. What happened to the wall in its early years — the addition of the two sculpture pieces and the flags — is probably nothing new in the grand scheme of commissioned art, but it might have been the opening shots in the Great Representation Wars of the latter years of the century.
When the monument to Franklin D. Roosevelt was in its design stages, the wheelchair question was batted around vigorously. Wikipedia provides a sketch that seems in accord with my memory of the time:
The statue of FDR also stirred controversy over the issue of his disability. Designers decided against plans to have FDR shown in a wheelchair. Instead, the statue depicts the president in a chair with a cloak obscuring the chair, showing him as he appeared to the public during his life. Roosevelt’s reliance on a wheelchair was not publicized during his life, as there was a stigma of weakness and instability associated with any disability. However, many wanted his disability to be shown to tell the story of what they believed to be the source of his strength. Other disability advocates, while not necessarily against showing him in a wheelchair, were wary of protests about the memorial that leaned toward making Roosevelt a hero because of his disability.
The sculptor added casters to the back of the chair in deference to advocates, making it a symbolic “wheelchair”. The casters are only visible behind the statue.
I’m trying to imagine being the artist saddled with this albatross of a commission, the weekly calls from the committee. Casters? My office chair has casters. So does yours, most likely. I guess that makes it a symbolic wheelchair, but (smacks forehead). It reminds me of a story I did once upon a time, about an artist in Fort Wayne. The guy worked as a school custodian on the graveyard shift and spent his days painting. He favored large canvases and photorealistic scenes, and worked slowly on his creations; it took him months to complete one. He also liked to paint in public places, and that, coupled with his easygoing, genial, not particularly artistic nature, made him a welcome guest in most of them. At the time I wrote about him, he was working in the library, but he had also done a stretch in the lobby of a local company.
If I’m remembering this correctly, that piece, the one done in the lobby, was of a night scene — the lobby at night, in fact. It was a commission from the company’s art acquisition committee, and in the months it took to complete, provided entertainment to the workers as they passed through. Late in its execution, he added a figure to the canvas — a janitor vacuuming the carpet. Suddenly, everyone was an art critic, but particularly the art committee. They began making subtle suggestions; are you sure you want that guy there? Does he have to be a janitor? Would you consider another sort of worker? The pressure built until someone floated the idea that the commission might be at risk if he insisted on keeping a janitor in this otherwise lovely scene of their lobby. The guy shrugged and said OK, I’ll just return your deposit and clear out, then. The committee backed down. Which goes to show you a lot of things, the main one being: Art by committee isn’t really art at all.
Getting back to the Vietnam memorial, I was struck then and am still struck by the stridency with which these groups push their agenda — the three-soldiers addition to the complex was carefully crafted for ethnic diversity, but didn’t satisfy the women who served, so they got their own sculpture, and…feh.
The Vietnam memorial has to have been an influence in the makeshift-memorial trend of recent years. The number of soldiers who came to leave dogtags, boots, photos and other mementos at the wall has to be a moving force behind the people who go to fatal-accident sites to leave flowers and teddybears. Or maybe there are huge gaps in my cultural-knowledge base, but my parents had a friend who was killed in a car crash, and they did their mourning at the cemetery.
OK, a little bloggage:
Jon Stewart — or his staff, anyway — earn their money yet again. Actually, they all deserve a raise for, well, click through and see.
Via Jeff TMMO, a fine Timothy Egan rant in the NYT, wondering if it’s time to put up the barricades. Well, actually that’s my reaction, but he’s dead-on.
Good gravy, this woman is a bleeping moron. Larry King finally grows a pair, and drives Jesus Barbie away.
And now, work begins. For me, anyway. You folks, keep surfing the internet.