Before the crowds pour in for its inauguration next weekend, stroll down to the new National World War II Memorial on the Mall and try a little thought experiment.
First, look at all the text carved into the memorial -- at the names of the nation's wartime states and territories; at the huge words "ATLANTIC" and "PACIFIC" that label the two pavilions dedicated to those theaters of war; at the names of the war's most famous battles; at the many inspirational quotes from players in the conflict. Now imagine that centuries of weather did away with all that lettering. Would you still be able to tell what the memorial honors? Would this piece of public art inspire any specific thoughts or feelings that have to do with World War II? If you can't imagine the memorial speaking without its words, then I'd argue that it doesn't truly do so with them, either.
In my work as an art critic, I often come across this imbalance between word and image. It's almost never put there by the artists themselves, when they're any good; it almost always comes when someone doesn't believe that art can work without the help of text. When museums don't really believe in the communicative power of a piece of art, however great and famous, they throw up words that are supposed to make it speak. The strange thing about the World War II memorial, I'd say, is that even the designers of this work of art don't trust it to communicate alone.
When the memorial was unveiled some weeks ago, Post architecture critic Ben Forgey argued that it worked just fine as a public commemorative space. My colleague may be right: After all, most of its viewers will be literate, and will dope out its texts if they want to. My concern is that this memorial isn't just a public space, or a history lesson. It's also public art. And that's where it fails to do its job.
That job, as I figure it, has two parts. The memorial has to use its art to trumpet the honor due to everyone who struggled against the Axis powers. And it should also artfully evoke some sense of what the conflict meant and means -- to those honored, to the world and to us.
The memorial does more or less okay by the honoring part, just by virtue of where it sits. We've let the memorial join an exclusive Middle of the Mall club whose only other members are the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. How much more clearly can we signal the importance that we give to it? You could stick a concrete slab on that site and people would know you intended something big by it.
I think it's true, as many critics have claimed, that the placement of the memorial has diminished the beauty of the Mall, and may make it less effective as a civic space. But I'm willing to imagine that the Mall's modest diminishment can also be read as a plus: Our willingness to sacrifice some of the look and feel and function of the "nation's back yard" shows the lengths we'll go in paying tribute to those who helped us win an undoubtedly just war.
But this tribute needed to be more than simply big and heartfelt. It needed to be eloquent, too, and specific to this conflict. The memorial has to honor, but it also has to evoke, and that's where it falls down.
Our little thought experiment proves just how generic the design of this memorial really is. Take away the written explanations, and you're left with a memorial that could be for almost anything. Columns marching in a circle, bronze wreaths, gold stars, spurting fountains, big bronze birds of prey, sculpted reliefs of historic scenes -- what martial effort couldn't be evoked by symbols like that? This is all stock celebration, not true commemoration -- there's no true calling to mind of what the war meant, and then committing it to memory.
Veterans and their families and supporters may get choked up by the sheer scale of the tribute being paid to them in this deluxe memorial. After such a very long delay, the simple symbolic fact of it was always guaranteed to do that trick, whatever its particulars. But many others I've talked to and overheard on my four visits to the site have said the structure, for all its size, leaves them feeling strangely unmoved.
Compare that to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial just down the road. That work, one of the most successful artistic commemorations ever, anywhere, is full of strong visual metaphors for what that specific war was all about. It conveys the enormity of American soldiers' suffering and sacrifice in combat, in the most immediate way possible -- by listing every single one of them who died. There's text here, of course -- that's almost all there is -- but it's text that seems integral to the larger work of art, not an external gloss on it. The monument's meaning is in the text, it's not explained by it. By giving the names of the dead in the order in which they gave their lives, for instance, the memorial implies the equality that death imposed on them, and maybe even hints at the fundamental equality that this country's democratic ideals presume they had in life as well. (In England, almost every neighborhood has a cenotaph to the soldiers lost in World War I -- but their names are often listed by rank, with a lieutenant getting bigger letters, higher up, than the lowly private he commanded.)
The Vietnam memorial honors the dead -- the scale of its glistening, polished granite makes that clear, as does the act of carving all those names in it -- but it also builds into its tribute the horror that accompanied their dying: You descend in silence into the black scar that war leaves in a nation, and then come out again into the light with a new thoughtfulness about what it all might mean.
What insights, however different, does the World War II memorial provoke? Where, for instance, is any stirring evocation of the reasons for joining in this war, and of its justness? Where are the special virtues that the United States presented as an alternative to fascism?
Faced with nations that believed in looking backward at a mythic past of racial excellence, the United States countered with a courageous new vision of equality and human rights and shared prosperity -- with an ethos that believed in leaving the dead past behind, and having the courage to change things to make them better for everyone. But how are democracy and daring and innovation built into the fabric of the World War II memorial? None of these national virtues is on show in a memorial that is bland and backward-looking, made from an identikit of parts taken from memorials we've all seen before. It is the standard general on horseback, writ extremely large.
There's an old journalists' saw that says that good writing should show, not tell. It should paint a picture for the reader, not list descriptive facts. You'd think this rule would apply double to a work of public art, which has to make its points at once, to viewers on the move. But on this monument, even the chiseled quotes barely give an image of the war: Most of them simply express square-jawed resolve or patriotic self-congratulation. The monument itself, minus its words, says even less.
It says so little, in fact, that our soldiers' worst enemies would have felt equally comfortable with its design. Imagine the memorial as paying tribute to the efforts of the Wehrmacht in Poland, or of the Carabinieri in Ethiopia -- change just a few of its explanatory inscriptions, that is -- and you realize that Europe's fascist leaders could not have found a thing in it to take exception to. Its sculpted raptors and victors' wreaths and imperial colonnades trumpet warlike virtues, but they never flag which side they're fighting on.
The veterans of World War II deserved a work of public art so great and so courageous that it would instantly evoke their greatness and their courage, and the daring ideals they fought for. Instead, they got a national memorial that is a timid work of art, with so little eloquence that it demands subtitles.