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.
All of this drive to be, as Lewis calls it, “fashionable”, in memorials and monuments in particular, seems to me…well, selfish. Instead of considering not only posterity, but the past upon which we are built, many artists seem more intent on being avant-garde and, dare I suggest it, gaining all sorts of press attention—good or bad—just for the sake of the attention. Therefore, they build monuments and memorials in order to indulge themselves, not to celebrate or honour something or someone else.
Perhaps this is another reason many of us appreciate older cemeteries so much. Their memorials are not only beautiful, but clear in their message, much like stuffed animals set atop a cross beside the road. Flowers, lambs, crosses, trees, angels, weeping ladies draped over headstones or crosses; it’s a universal language, and a graceful one at that. And though each headstone, each sculpture honours an individual or perhaps a pair, we are not excluded from what they have to say. More recently, I have seen headstones of contemporary vintage with military scenes, bucks, pets, and even a John Deere tractor. These are things all can understand, that honour the dead without being overdone or telling us the whole story. It is simply what the dead and family of the dead thought we needed to know about them.
Artists, especially those called upon to create memorials and monuments that will be gazed upon and contemplated over by generations to come, need to remember that despite their cache as an artist, there are events, people, and ideas much, much bigger than they are or ever will be. That which we are memorializing or building a monument to must be allowed to speak for itself; ; it should not project solely or mostly the artist’s ideas and thoughts. Such artwork should be created with a mind toward truly honouring the subject; the artist’s own style will surely come through on its own with little encouragement, and their work will be appreciated for its thoughtfulness, sensitivity toward its subject, and beauty rather than disliked, disdained, or even reviled when it is unveiled and revealed to be more about the artist than the subject.
Memorials and monuments are meant for all—for the citizens, for the nation—and to be perfectly honest, when I see an artist use their newly-won commission for a monument to speak for themselves instead of to speak for that which it is they build a monument to, to say nothing of posterity and history, it leaves me feeling sad, ashamed, and sometimes, a little angry.
* Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.