Vietnam War Memorial

I have to admit, I’ve never thought that the Vietnam War Memorial (1981-1983; National Mall, Washington DC) was especially interesting or intriguing. I think it is a serene, respectful tribute to those who died in the Vietnam War, but I can’t spend hours and hours thinking about the aesthetic or design of the structure. Don’t get me wrong – I like the feel and look of minimalist sculpture and architecture, but I just can’t pontificate much about the, uh, minimal qualities of the work. (And art historians love to pontificate!) For this reason, I’ve always kind of skimmed over the Vietnam War Memorial in my art history textbooks and lectures.

However, one of the reasons I started this blog was so I could learn more information about various art pieces and (hopefully) gain more appreciation for them. So, in light of Memorial Day, I decided to read more about the Vietnam War Memorial. And I’ve learned some fascinating information about controversy that surrounded the completion of this memorial.

In 1981, Maya Lin was 21 years old when her design was chosen (out of 1,421 final entries) for the Vietnam War Memorial. The V-shaped black granite is partially lowered into the ground. I didn’t realize this before, but this monument is lowered in the manner of ancient burial grounds.1 The jury selected Lin’s design because they felt like the simplicity of the design would be least controversial. However, many people were upset with the design choice, arguing that the contrast of the black granite against the nearby white memorials could be interpreted as a criticism of the Vietnam War (and a criticism of the efforts expended by those who fought in the war).2 Furthermore, critics were upset with the black color of the granite; one veteran argued that black is “the universal color of shame, sorry and degradation in all races, all societies worldwide.”3

As a compromise, the Commission of Fine Arts decided in 1983 to commission Frederick Hart to create a realistic bronze sculpture of three armed soldiers (shown right). This sculpture which was eventually placed about 100 feet from the memorial wall. About a decade later, a group of nurses got permission to erect a sculpture honoring women’s service in Vietnam. Glenna Goodacre was commissioned to built this sculpture, and it was placed in 1993 about 300 feet south of the memorial (see an image here).

I’m a little surprised that Maya Lin’s memorial caused so much debate and controversy, although it makes sense. I think that people usually have strong opinions whenever a memorial is built, because so much emotion is connected to the purpose of constructing a memorial. Personally, I think that the black granite is effective and appropriate – the reflective surface ensures that anyone who reads the names on the memorial will become active “participants in the experience of remembering the dead,” because the reader can see himself/herself mirrored against the names.

Here’s to remembering our dead, and those who sacrificed so that we can enjoy freedom. The Vietnam War Memorial lists 57, 939 casualties (including those M.I.A.). It’s mindboggling and humbling to think of how many people have died in other wars, especially since our armed forces are overseas at present.

What do you think of Maya Lin’s monument? Do you find the design controversial?

1“Lin, Maya.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T051132, accessed May 25, 2009).

2 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th ed., vol. 2 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005), 1044.

3 Elizabeth Hess, “A Tale of Two Memorials,” Art in America 71, no. 4 (April 1983): 122.

4 “Lin, Maya” in Grove Art Online.

  • E says:

    When first reading this, I was thinking how ridiculous it was that people would be upset over the color or the minimal nature of the monument. It seems like people *choose* to be offended over everything. However, I can understand the sentiment that if it were I who participated in the war, or I who lost someone significant, or if I was a minority who had dealt with oppression my whole life, I might be bothered by it. I can understand that the simplistic nature of the monument was meant to keep the peace, yet, I think I can understand that to many people it could be interpreted as making light of a very controversial war.

    I don’t think any harm was meant, but when I think about it, I can understand why people were bothered. But, at the end of the day, I think most people would agree that the Vietnam memorial is one of the most popular and spoken about monuments in DC.

  • Kiersten says:

    I actually really love this monument–so much so that I spent a lot of time going over it in my 111 class, and even included it as one of the IDs/short essay questions on the final.

    I think the fact that it is cut into the earth is also significant because it makes the monument seem like a scar (maybe this adds to the controversy also). I also love that the viewer makes a journey descending into the earth while experiencing the monument, then travels back up into the land of the living. I think it makes the memorial experience much more corporeal that way, and corporeality is one of the major aspects of minimalism. While many monuments overwhelm us and make us lose ourselves as we apprehend their size and sheer monumentality (I know that’s redundant), Maya Lin’s memorial is unique in that it makes us realize ourselves and our relation to the dead in its minimalist design (like you mentioned–the reflection of the viewer in the black stone contributes to this sensation). I guess I’m just saying that I love this memorial because it is so much more personal than any other monument in Washington.

  • joolee says:

    Love this monument – so simple, but so poignant. It begins small, with the name of the first few people that died in the war, then the wall (and list of names) grows and grows until it overwhelms you in the center. And the color – if it wasn’t black, it wouldn’t be so “interactive”. To see yourself reflected in those names is truly humbling!

  • M says:

    Kiersten, I’m so glad that you posted your thoughts on the monument! That comment got me more excited about the memorial and appreciative of its design and overall concept.

    I never thought about the corporeality of this memorial and how that ties into the minimalist objectives of space and size. That’s so true. It’s interesting to think how this monument is also larger than life-size. Visitors need to look up in order to see some of the names at the top of the memorial. (In other words, they can’t look down at the monument and command the space or structure.) In a way, the size could cause one to feel like this monument and the cause behind these names are bigger and more significant (in the literal and metaphorical sense) than the viewer itself.

    And the idea of descending into the land of the dead is quite moving and poignant. Another good point. Overall, I can see what you’re saying about how the memorial is “personal.”

    P.S. Did you go and see this when we were on our DC trip? I feel like somebody expressly went to the Mall to visit the memorial – perhaps it was you.

  • Jaime says:

    I’ve only visited this monument once, on a school field trip growing up (5th grade, I think?), but it stands out in my memory for the emotional/spiritual connection that I felt to it. It gave me a very strong sense both of my own mortality and of my common humanity with each of the faceless names on the wall (and I was only about 10, so it was kind of a formative experience, I guess). The descending and ascending walkway, as someone mentioned before, really does add a visceral sense of being buried/sinking into a dark abyss, and then as you walk up, feeling resurrected/reborn/like you have a new chance at life (Interesting that the design was based on ancient burial grounds! What an effective design element to invoke.)

    I can also understand the controversy, but one of the great things about this monument (in my mind) is the way that it communicates the tremendous human cost of war – so that we as a nation should never turn to it except as a last resort.

  • GermyB says:

    The memorial gets a lot of coverage (understandably so) in the documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” that I watched a few months ago. There were other issues people had like the fact that she was the daughter of immigrants (therefore not American enough??). Anyway, it’s a decent film if anyone’s interested. Not fabulous, but decent.

  • Kiersten says:

    I did actually visit the memorial on that DC trip, and then I went back later that summer when I visited the area for some thesis research. The first time I saw it was at night in the winter, and the only people there were myself and a couple of friends, and the second time was during the day with lots of tourists around. It was interesting how they made for very different experiences. The first time felt a bit more poignant, I think.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.