As it is with social etiquette, so it is with memorials. An artist who sweeps away the traditional conventions for dealing with the great truths of life, death, and sacrifice, can only shuffle about in the cupboard of his own store of mental images.
One thing I simply cannot wait to sit down and enjoy with a cup of freshly brewed tea is Imprimis, which arrives free every month from Hubby’s alma mater. The subjects covered—just one each month—vary from art and architecture to culture and foreign affairs, and always pique my interest.
This month, writer and professor of art at Williams College Michael J. Lewis writes about the contemporary state of monuments and memorials. His thoughts were interesting indeed, and are certainly something artists should pay attention to, particularly as Lewis seems to actually have standards and we never know whom or what we might be called upon to honour. He touches on the obnoxious literalism of memorials today, an interesting discussion all by itself, but the first few paragraphs are what really stuck with me.
The entire article is worth reading, but here’s an excerpt that really got me thinking (all emphasis added):
As traditionally understood, a monument is the expression of a single powerful idea in a single emphatic form, in colossal scale and in permanent materials, made to serve civic life….
The spontaneous roadside memorials that mark the site of fatal traffic accidents are a relatively new phenomenon. As physical objects they are ephemera, but as a mass cultural phenomenon they are quite extraordinary, and they testify to a deep human need for memorials. It is a new form of folk art, and it is extremely conventionalized in its expression. For one thing, its repertoire of forms and materials is very narrow: crosses, flowers, hand-painted signs, and heartbreakingly, in the case of a child, stuffed animals. There is very little else, and no striving for originality. Their creators look for widely understood symbols, and they yearn for resolution and closure; they certainly do not aspire to an open-ended process.
In a way, these anonymous roadside sculptors understand what many contemporary artists do not—that monuments, because they are public art forms, must be legible. And this requires a great degree of convention. Thus most traditional monuments are paraphrases of a few ancient types: the triumphal arch, the temple, the colossal column, and the obelisk. Since the 1930s, it has been fashionable to disparage this as architectural grave-robbing, and to argue that we should create our own forms. But these forms are timeless, not simply ancient. After all, the arch is nothing more than a space of passage, made monumental; an obelisk or column is the exclamation point raised above a sacred spot; and a temple is a tabernacle, the sacred tent raised over an altar. These ideas are permanent, and it is not surprising that the one successful work of contemporary public art, the Vietnam Memorial, took its form from one of the most ancient—the mural shrine, the wailing wall.
…Frank Lloyd Wright found the Jefferson Memorial preposterous for its archaic expression. But true monumentality has little to do with style and everything to do with simplicity and grandeur of expression. *
My opinion here is bound to be unpopular, but holding unpopular opinions is something I’m used to, so here goes.