Things can be different, however, witness the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – surely Washington’s most-frequented monument today and in a way the antithesis of Serra’s Tilted Arc . Two polished black granite walls meet at an angle of 125 degrees and 12 minutes, tapering towards the outer ends. They are engraved with the names of 58,000 American soldiers who died in the Vietnam war and the dates of their deaths. The installation is symmetrical, and because it backs onto soil, the beholder cannot fail to grasp its meaning. Its maker, Maya Lin, is not an artist. When she designed the memorial in the early eighties she was twenty-one years old and studying architecture at Yale. Her aim was to stimulate a therapeutic catharsis and she certainly seems to have succeeded, for it is virtually impossible to visit the memorial without coming across Vietnam veterans. Presumably they are searching for the names of lost comrades with whom they are linked by personal experiences which have left a lasting mark.
By that token the Vietnam Memorial is part of a tradition that goes back to primeval times (if we include megalithic grave culture), a tradition of funerary and cult structures universally characterized by memento mori. Since no mortal is excepted from the finiteness of physical existence, memorials, by virtue of their status, are surfaces on which individual experiences and a collective coming-to-terms with those experiences can be projected.
Tilted Arc offers no link with that kind of personal experience. Although its structure may be experienced physically, i.e. individually, awareness of that experience depends on the appropriate expectations. The casual passer-by cannot be presumed to have these expectations. It would be premature to conclude from this that only memorials make for good public art. Maya Lin’s piece is an exception which proves the rule. Most memorials – even when they do work well – are classic examples of poor taste and unworthy to be called art. Because they refer to content – to things we are meant to remember – they are incompatible with our western concept of art, which is based on a free art, an art free of denoted content and function. However, an artist who ventures to broach public space with his personal project would be well advised to bear in mind the memorial’s long tradition in the history of humanity, for that is the expectation or attitude he will have to face.