Last week's New Yorker includes an article by Louis Menand that is a warning for anyone concerned about the September 11th memorial planned for the World Trade Center site. The article extravagantly celebrates Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, and, without explicitly saying so, makes her the New York intellectuals' clear choice to design the September 11th memorial. For her part, Lin, while publicly reticent about the memorial, is not above admitting interest in the job. As she puts it, "I cannot stop thinking about the World Trade Center. I just can't." She also is "starting to talk quietly to various parties involved" with the site.
For the moment, the choice of designer of the memorial is some way off. According to the schedule of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), which is in charge of planning, the memorial design process is to be announced soon, but the location and size of the memorial plot await a master plan, which is not likely to be decided before year's end. It is unlikely that a decision on a designer will be made until sometime next year.
This has not restrained people from jockeying for positions of influence. But for the moment, Louis Thomson, speaking for the LMDC, reports that "it seems to us that the families [of the victims] is the logical place to begin." This brings us back to Maya Lin. If the New York memorial emulates her Washington work, the wishes of the families are apt to be the last, not the first, consideration.
The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial is 20 years old, but memory of the controversies it generated has not faded. This is not necessarily bad. It reminds us of what is at stake in the September 11th memorial, and anticipates some of the present arguments. The basic question is, what should such memorials reflect? Many Vietnam veterans and the survivors of those who fell there think the Vietnam memorial, although certainly effective in some ways, does not do justice or appropriately salutes the sacrifices of those who served. Rather than a memorial to Vietnam veterans, it is, as Menand suggests, a memorial to death itself, "a piece about death."
The potential discomfort of those most personally affected by September 11th does not, however, much disturb Ms. Lin. Her view, Menand relates, is that just as the veterans of Vietnam could not claim moral ownership of the remembrance of their sacrifices, so the survivors in New York cannot have any special claims on the September 11th memorial.
Maya Lin is very talented. In the Vietnam monument she succeeds in exactly what she intended. The monument, in effect a gigantic tombstone, was designed to elicit an emotional response in visitors, and it does. One cannot ignore its power. Menand calls it, correctly, "one of the great anti-war statements of all time."
But this is precisely the problem. For Lin, the memorial to the Vietnam warriors is a statement intended to depreciate them, and indeed any warrior purpose. This is not a matter of revisiting arguments over Vietnam. Her memorial has very little to do with Vietnam specifically: in a generation or two people will have to be told what exactly the memorial memorializes. It is a universalistic vision that obscures, indeed erases, any sense of contributions of individuals to a nation in a specific cause. It would work as well in Baghdad as on the Mall in Washington.
To say art is powerful is not to say that it is great, or good. To my mind, the most powerful documentary work of art of the twentieth century is Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's valentine to Hitler and paean to Nazism. Lin says she has no politics. I believe her. But she fails to see that having no politics is itself a political decision. If something akin to what she did in Washington becomes the case in New York, the public's response to the September 11th attack will be dissipated in a haze of intellectual illusions.
One thing is absolutely predictable. If Maya Lin or those who follow her have their way in New York, we can forget about an American flag playing any significant role in a September 11th memorial. The symbol of America, especially prominent after September 11th, can play no part in "apolitical" art.