If compromise is the genius of the American political system, it rarely serves the far different demands of art. Yet it was an esthetically astute, though politically motivated, compromise that produced the nation's magnificent memorial to the veterans of the war in Vietnam.
In a moving ceremony yesterday morning a slightly larger than life-size statue of three battle-weary American soldiers was unveiled at the memorial site in Constitution Gardens, thus beginning, in the words of retired Army general Michael S. Davidson, "the final steps to complete this memorial."
In another ceremony at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow, Veterans Day, the statue will be formally dedicated and the memorial officially transferred to the custody of the Department of the Interior by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the hardy group of veterans that has shepherded the memorial through five long years of controversy.
Jan Scruggs, founder and president of the VVMF and the person who conceived the idea for the memorial, inadvertently set the tone for yesterday's emotional gathering in his introduction for retired Army major general Frederick Davidson. Scruggs fought back tears as he recalled a day in March 1969, "a bad day for Company D, 4th Battalion, 199th Light Infantry Brigade," when he had looked up from his "little place in the jungle and saw General Davidson, who had only three days left in Vietnam, but who had heard about the battle and the terrible casualties we had taken, and who wanted to shake the hands of the survivors."
Scruggs apologized for "getting emotional," but he needn't have. His recitation of a specific place and time 15 years ago was precisely the right thing to do. Behind him was sculptor Frederick Hart's statue, intensely realistic in its minutest detail, and to his front, beyond the crowd, was artist Maya Lin's awesomely abstract V-shaped wall of polished black granite, inscribed with the names of 58,022 American troops who died as a result of the war.
Esthetically Hart's concept and Lin's are like oil and water. Not only do they represent the opposing stylistic poles of realism and abstraction, but they also embody dramatically different ways of dealing with the symbolism of public, memorial art. Only time will tell if these radically different solutions to the same problem, this forced joining of the particular and the universal, will grow together as a strong, expressive whole, but time, I strongly feel, is on their side.
That this result is even possible is due in large measure to the formal brilliance and spiritual strength of Lin's original design. Her name, unpardonably, went unmentioned in yesterday's ceremony but her presence was there for all to see: the great black wall, rising from and returning to the grass-covered earth exactly on axis with the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, more than justifies the daring confidence of the jurors who, three years ago, selected her design from among the 1,421 entries in the largest design competition ever held in the United States or Europe.
Is there anyone who has ever visited this memorial without being deeply moved? I sincerely doubt it, just as I doubt that 100 years from now, when the conflicting passions of this war have faded almost beyond recall, visitors to the memorial will not be profoundly affected by the experience. "Death is in the end a personal and private matter," the 22-year-old Lin wrote in 1981, "and the area contained within this memorial is a quiet place, meant for personal reflection and private reckoning." The prescience of this statement is, by now, beyond question.
But Hart, too, deserves great credit. His was a thankless assignment: to graft what seemed to many, myself included, an unnecessary and foreign element onto a superb, holistic design, and to do so under tremendous pressures of time and often hostile publicity. The sculptor, whose figural statues had been part of a competition entry that received high marks from the jury, was right to stick to his realist guns. Hart, too, was prescient. He saw quite clearly that to compromise his own philosophy in the direction of idealization would have been to weaken "the tension between the two elements," and establishing that tension, he knew, was the only chance he had to create "a resonance that echoes from one element to the other."
It could be argued that this marriage of opposite styles in effect produces two distinct memorials, one for the opponents of Lin's austere design, who can simply turn their backs to the wall, and one for opponents of the statue, who, likewise, can do their best to ignore its existence. And it is true that statue and wall, when seen close up, offer somewhat contradictory and mutually exclusive experiences.
Hart has said that he would put the "folds of those fatigue jackets and pants up against the folds of any carved medieval angel you can find," and his pride in the intense realism of the figures is justified. Just as the medieval carvers wanted to see the angels, to make the vision concrete, so Hart wanted not so much to represent the idea of soldiers as to recall from boonie hat to boot laces exactly what it was like for American foot soldiers to be tenuously alive in a particular place at a particular time. And just as the accouterments are correct, so too are the gestures and facial expressions: these young men, tired and wary, look across the field, as if, indeed, they were just emerging from the jungle into a clearing without being entirely sure of what they would find there.
But one really has to strain to read the elements of the memorial as being totally separate from one another and I think that after a while people will give up trying. This is because the "entry" element, consisting of the statue and a 50-foot flagpole located in a grove of trees about 70 feet from the southwestern edge of the walls, is indeed beautifully placed.
Much credit for this result is due to the Fine Arts Commission, which, under the foresightful leadership of J. Carter Brown, stood up to the pressure of angry conservatives by insisting upon a placement that would respect Maya Lin's design, and also to architect Kent Cooper and landscape architect Joe Brown, who designed the quiet shelter for the flagpole and statue.
As I said, time will tell. But when you stand there in the hollow next to those great black walls and look back up the hill to that copse of trees, you now see these three figures, and there is something in their expectant stance that makes the space between you and them come alive. It is perhaps a most improbable reconciliation, but it is altogether a fitting one.