Vietnam Veterans Memorial 25 Years Later: A Change in Public Art

Story posted November 12, 2007

November 13, 2007, marks the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the national war memorial in Washington, D.C., that honors members of the U.S. armed forces who died in service or who are unaccounted for during the Vietnam War.

Mark Wethli, A. LeRoy Greason Professor of Art, teaches the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in his public art course. "Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial marked a sea change in both the creative conception and public reception of public memorials, as it did for public art in general," says Wethli. "It was extremely controversial when Lin's winning proposal was unveiled, and described derisively as a 'scar' on the landscape — and, by extension, on the memory of those who were lost."

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Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.

The memorial was rendered in black granite panels — a deliberate design feature that brings the past and the present together as visitors see their reflections and the engraved names simultaneously — that nonetheless stood in stark contrast to more traditional figurative memorials cast in white stone or bronze.

"The Memorial also marked a healing moment in the ever-widening rift between 'high' art and popular taste, and is often cited when innovative proposals for new public monuments — such as those for 9/11 — are presented," Wethli says.

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Mark Wethli

"Nevertheless, and despite the clear success of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, most members of the public — and of selection committees — have a tough time accepting 'abstract' designs over more traditional representational and figurative ones; even though the figurative sculpture that was added to the Vietnam Memorial, as an appeasement to veterans groups at the time, has not captured the public imagination — and veterans' affections — nearly as much as the wall."

Wethli notes that veterans and the families of those who have perished have since become deeply attached to the monument. "Not least of all," he says, "for its interactive dimension, as families and others can take rubbings from the names incised on the walls, and also leave flowers and other gifts of remembrance."

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