Americans find the making of large national monuments so contentious and painful that it's surprising we build any at all. From 1987, when the idea was proposed in Congress, through this weekend's opening festivities, the National World War II Memorial has provoked so much controversy that it would be tempting to dismiss it all as just so much white noise from the black art of cultural criticism. But that would dismiss more than just an array of aesthetic and land use issues; it would dismiss a basic, contrarian stirring in the nation's psyche, a stirring as essential to the American democratic spirit as leavening to bread. Some cantankerous part of us does not like monuments at all. That is a good and important prompting, and something, if it weren't so paradoxical, that we should probably build a monument to honor.

What causes this unease? Consider stone. Stone is our central metaphor for things that are final, unassailable and commanding. Stonewall Jackson was unmovable; to stonewall is to be unyielding; a stony face refuses expression. And "set in stone" suggests that an idea, or a fact, has been placed in its ultimate form, beyond emendation and, often, beyond debate or contradiction.

Monuments are ideas set in stone, which is why they torment us. They are an attempt to place some fact, or some understanding of history, beyond dispute: This man was heroic; this war was good; these people should be remembered. They demand our assent to some basic proposition, which we can give or we can withhold. Successful monuments make clear statements, and earn (though not always at first) wide agreement; bad ones demand more than we can give, or lack clarity, and ultimately inspire resistance, indifference or division.

In a democratic society, there is a natural, healthy resistance to any kind of compliance with a final understanding of history. Historical understandings change. Good wars and good men don't necessarily seem so to later generations. And nothing, even a just war or a great man, is entirely good. The most basic message of any monument -- this war was good, or at least just -- brings with it other ideas, corollaries, embedded meanings that we are not so willing to agree with. And some essential part of American society -- call them critics -- refuses the finality of monuments with a reflexive unwillingness to cede any understanding to other people. At least not with the finality of stone.

Even as veterans, descendants, politicians and other celebrants gathered to participate in the opening of the World War II Memorial this weekend, debate about its merits continued, though you could hear a note of caution in the tone. It is taken for granted that the veterans of World War II deserve a memorial of some sort. And though that war has sparked controversy over Japanese American internment camps, the use of the atomic bomb, the firebombing of Dresden, none of this is on the table right now. The memorial simply assumes, and embodies, the language (and often the cliches) that have grown up around "the greatest generation," heroes all, who fought the "last great war."

Or is it possible that by skirting these "big" issues, critics have gotten at a deeper one? By nibbling around the edges of the memorial's message, by examining its aesthetics, the critics have raised basic questions about whether memorials, especially war memorials, can ever be entirely successful in a democracy.

Did it need to be on the National Mall, so centrally placed? Did it need to be so big? Did it have to look like a water park? Did it reach back to the right architectural traditions? Some found the memorial so vague as to be meaningless; others resented the specificity of its language. For the vast majority of Americans, these arguments are confined to the all but invisible circle of people who write critically about art, architecture and public space. "It almost certainly will be judged a huge success, especially with war-era veterans," began a USA Today article about the ongoing controversy over its design.

No aesthetic argument, however, is without political meanings, and when the public space in question is the National Mall, the political meanings are amplified. In many cases, these aesthetic arguments echo, and are perhaps proxies for, political arguments. The belief, expressed by many critics, that the memorial should not be where it is, that it destroys the integrity of the open mall, impedes vistas and disrupts the flow of space, can be read as basic resistance to filling open space with meaning. A nation of great partisan division and racial and religious heterogeneity functions best when it demands universal assent only to the most basic principles. The less one chisels on the public tablet -- the less often one starts a proposition with the collective "we" -- the better.

Critics who argue that the memorial's neoclassic design and central open plaza are fundamentally bland are expressing concern about the dangers of vague language in the hands of anyone who presumes to speak for us: the government, or an artist chosen by the government. Say something specific, something we can vote up or down, something tangible. Ambiguity plus power equals dangerous opportunism in the hands of the unscrupulous.

It's curious how both these seemingly contradictory arguments -- against filling public space with particular meanings, or saying things that are vague and open to dangerous interpretation -- reflect basic views of how law functions in a free society. Make no more laws than necessary, and be sure that the ones you do make are specific, limited and precise in their meanings. Inasmuch as monuments demand a universal agreement about something, they are a kind of legislation in stone -- and the process of making them should be just as contentious as the making of laws.

There is a habit, in our democracy, of equating the inevitability of argument with the irrelevance of argument. Because someone will always complain, complaint itself becomes suspect. If monuments are always contentious, if some critic is always dissecting them for unwanted and resisted meanings, then perhaps the problem is with the critics, not with the monuments. Wasn't Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial contentious when it was new? And isn't it now accepted, even beloved, by the public?

"In 20 years," said Friedrich St. Florian, architect of the World War II Memorial, in 2000, "it will be part of this family of great memorials, and nobody will have any arguments about it."

St. Florian couldn't know, at the time, that when his monument made its debut, the United States would again be embroiled in a controversial war or that, as with Vietnam, the war would lead some Americans to question the nation's basic character: Do we go to war too easily, or too reluctantly? He couldn't know that, like Lin's monument, his would be seen as a statement about war, not just about the people who served.

Lin's monument has been held up by critics of the new one as an argument against monumentality itself. It works because it doesn't demand that the viewer come to a single, sanctioned conclusion about the war; it leaves the interpretation open-ended. But this line of thought doesn't do justice to Lin's design. Hers works because it says something very clear about the Vietnam War. It offers an understanding that, while controversial at first, has gained assent. It says that this war was a wound, a gash in the body politic, and that the country needed to pass through and beyond memory of the war's controversy to healing. Lin's memorial succeeds for much the same reason that the Lincoln Memorial (which angered some Southerners when it was built) does: The proposition it demands we concur with -- that we need to move beyond what was, in the case of Vietnam, a war of folly -- is now the dominant understanding. Neither the Lincoln nor the Vietnam memorial gathered love like patina on a statue; rather, both memorials came to be loved as their central proposition forged a collective understanding.

What is the basic proposition of St. Florian's memorial? The simple request that we honor the sacrifice of those who served is never the totality of a war monument's message. Architecture, design and words carry with them ancillary propositions that trouble monument contrarians. St. Florian raised the issue himself: "World War II is, in a sense, a glorious war -- a triumph of democracy over totalitarianism," he said, in the March 1997 issue of Architectural Record. "But at the same time, wars must be remembered but not glorified, because even with a war that has such noble intentions there is also incredible suffering on both sides."

But if he sought to control unintended meanings, he failed. Even before it was built, New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp gave the monument's meaning his own specificity: "The World War II Memorial can be seen as a monument to the military-entertainment industry complex, our new enforcers of the global Pax American Pop Culture." Other critics have pointed to the memorial's use of arches as outside the vernacular of a properly American memorial architecture, suggesting that the design brings with it the whiff of something Roman, something imperial, something more to do with military conquest than liberation.

Running like a leitmotif through much of the criticism of the new memorial is a sense that, just as St. Florian feared, it glorifies war in general by celebrating the last "good" war. There is suspicion, now that the nation is again divided by war, that World War II has become a rhetorical stick with which we beat back the instinct to peace, patience and diplomacy. Those who think war is almost always the wrong solution to the problem -- and they may be proved right in Iraq -- are flogged with the question: What about Hitler? In this newspaper, art critic Blake Gopnik suggested that, without all its words and verbal reminders of World War II, this monument could be a generic monument to war itself: "Its sculpted raptors and victors' wreaths and imperial colonnades trumpet warlike virtues, but they never flag which side they're fighting on."

The contrarian spirit that resists monuments in general may well be a close relative of the contrarian spirit that resists war in general. Like monuments, war is made in the name of final and absolute statements; it chisels finality on the world through death, as monuments chisel final meanings in stone.

Much has been made of the long time it took to make this monument -- almost 60 years from the end of the war. Perhaps that's a good thing. A nation that makes monuments reluctantly is a nation that makes wars reluctantly. As grateful veterans gather to see the new memorial, there is some doubt (to this contrarian, at least) as to whether we are still that kind of nation.

Author's e-mail: kennicottp@washpost.com

Philip Kennicott is The Post's culture critic.

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