Americans of good spirits and good will today share the hope that the words of reconciliation pronounced at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are, at once, descriptive of the present day and prophetic of a lasting cure for the social wounds caused by that war.
All can take heart, I believe, from the fundamental fact of the memorial's existence. It is there, built of stone in an honored place, and it represents a necessary national gesture of respect for the people we asked to fight the war.
The fact that, despite bitter dispute, the memorial came to be in such a short time -- three years from inception to dedication -- is a measure of the need for it, as well as a tribute to the veterans who shepherded the project through the dicey circumstances of its birth.
Debate over the memorial's form and content will doubtless continue for some time. But the issue of its physical form has been all but settled even though diehard opponents of the memorial's long black walls continue to agitate and air their displeasure, calling for congressional, Cabinet-level, or even presidential intervention on their side. Their calls most likely will, and clearly should, remain unheeded for two simple reasons: one political, the other esthetic.
The fight over the design of the memorial -- touched off shortly after Maya Ying Lin's stark competition-winning design was first published -- echoed the political struggle over the war itself in its intensity and acrimony and in opening seemingly elemental divisions: brother against brother, hawk against dove. There was, however, a major difference in results. The political center was occupied, and a consensus was reached.
When Fine Arts Commission Chairman J. Carter Brown last month announced the decision to approve certain changes in the design (namely the addition of a flagpole and a statue of three soldiers), and Interior Secretary James G. Watt subsequently issued a permit for today's official dedication, the stalemate was broken. Opponents and proponents of Lin's original design had been effectively outflanked.
The question remains whether this basically political compromise will in the end produce an esthetically satisfying result. Yet, there is no eternal law that says it cannot or will not happen. Indeed, thanks to the subtlety (simultaneously political and esthetic) of the Fine Arts Commission, which mandated a much-needed change in the location of the added elements, and thanks to the talent and sensitivity of Frederick Hart, the sculptor picked to create the statue of the American soldiers, there is a fighting chance the result will be esthetically pleasing.
If it is, the biggest thanks will be due Maya Lin and the jurors who picked her design from the more than 1,400 entries to the memorial competition. As the artist intended, it is an extremely moving memorial -- not just an object but a place of tremendous stillness and force.
Experiencing that place simply obliterates the shrill oversimplifications of the debate concerning the esthetics of the memorial. It is modern art, of course, and to some this is enough to condemn it. But it takes ideological blinders to ignore the basic fact that it works. It is not terribly innovative, not by any means a dernier cri from the avant-garde. So much the better: Lin was able to build upon the geometric tradition of minimalist sculpture and the romantic inclinations of earth artists to make an intensely public place that works . . . visually, emotionally and symbolically.
There are three special reasons, among many, for its effect. The long walls of the memorial are extremely, if simply, responsive to the extraordinary site in the way they subtly define a sense of enclosed space and at the same time give it extraordinary breadth, pointing at each end toward the great symbolic presences of the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. Lin's debt to modern art is probably less important than her intuitive understanding of the geometry of the place and the monumental city.
The polished black granite, reflecting earth and sky and people, enveloping nature and mankind, adds enomously to the experience: the perfect material. It is hard to imagine a casual visitor to the memorial, even in the distant future, for a visitor becomes a seeker when confronting the walls with their long toll of the engraved names of the dead and missing Americans.
Engraving the names was part of the competition program. Lin's concept of listing them in a circular, chronological progression, going into the earth and out of it, beginning and ending at the center, where the walls intersect, is a final, profoundly metaphoric twist with universal implications.
Hart's sculpture, on the face of it, is different: representational, not abstract; concrete rather than metaphorical; specific instead of general. It is also an excellent piece of work, as contemporary in its way as Lin's. If Robert Morris and Isamu Noguchi stand behind her effort, Duane Hanson and George Segal stand behind Hart's.
His piece consists of three standing figures -- young soldiers in battle dress -- modeled with extreme fidelity to realistic detail. But it is their postures, gestures and concentrated faces that count most: the soldiers pause . . . savvy, puzzled, wary, intense. Baroque artists excelled in portraying this sense of expectancy in a distilled moment: Hart uses the device to evade the temptations of tendentiousness and martial corn that come automatically with the subject. It's easy to say "make a noble military sculpture," but extraordinarily hard to do. Hart's inspiration was to circumvent the issue and, thereby, to make a convincing work of art.
Still, adding the sculpture and the flag clearly was a political, not an esthetic, necessity. The need now is to make sure the elements are placed in some meaningful, or at least workable, esthetic juxtaposition. The idea of putting the flagpole behind the apex of the walls (and leaving Hart's statue, as Carter Brown observed, to "shiver naked out there in the field") was demeaning both to the flag and the walls of the memorial: a golf course solution.
If that is done, then maybe in time the elements will blend. A century from now the sculpture may then be seen to contribute a needed note of specificity to the monument, a reminder of the urgency and special circumstances that prompted the creation of a remarkable place.