The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials

Michael Lewis
Williams College

Michael LewisMichael J. Lewis, the Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art at Williams College, has taught American art and architecture at Williams since 1993. After receiving his B.A. from Haverford College in 1980 and two years at the University of Hannover in Germany, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989. He has also taught at Bryn Mawr College, McGill University in Montreal, and the University of Natal in South Africa. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Commentary, and The New Criterion, and his books include The Gothic Revival and American Art and Architecture.

The following is adapted from a lecture delivered on March 2, 2012, at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C. Photos of the monuments mentioned in this lecture can be viewed at

Returning to the monuments that have been so controversial in Washington recently, the Eisenhower project is scarcely a memorial, let alone a monument. Its principal object, the sculpture of Eisenhower as a farm boy, is far smaller than the colossal backdrops that surround him. It will be these images, abstract depictions of the Kansas countryside and photographic images of Eisenhower’s life, which provide the dominant visual note. Lost and adrift somewhere in this theme park of billboards and fragmented colonnades is Eisenhower himself, diminished and bewildered. To ask one obvious question: What does this have to say about the guiding spirit of D-Day? Clearly Gehry was ill at ease with the martial subject matter, which is why his central image shows Eisenhower “looking out over his future achievements” and doesn’t spell out to future generations of Americans what those achievements were.

As for the King Memorial, the most common charge is that it recalls the despotic sculpture of Leninist-Maoist regimes, with their avuncular but stern “dear leaders.” The sculptor has spent his entire life in such a culture, and it is to be expected that his design would be accused of being a surrogate Chairman Mao image. And to be sure, there is something imperious and implacable about the face of King, a kind of lithic ruthlessness. It certainly seems fiercer than that of our other national martyr to civil rights, Abraham Lincoln. But I would propose that the difference is not so much between American and Chinese character and ideas, although those are at play, but between granite and marble. King is carved out of the former, a dense stone with a crystalline structure that is carved with the greatest of difficulty, forcing a language of sharp lines, flat planes, and generalized roundness. The marble from which Lincoln is carved is far more supple, permitting softer modeling. When one looks at King, with double lines delineating eyes, lips, and nose, one realizes this is the most primal sculptural language of all, that of ancient Egypt.

But there is a far greater problem with the King Memorial. Its overall conception was inspired by a line from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which promises that together we will build “out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” So we see depicted a Mountain of Despair and a Stone of Hope. The whole ensemble is a kind of visual diagram of King’s metaphor, with the Stone of Hope moved forward as neatly as a pawn advancing on a chessboard. In other words, just as the Korean War Veterans Memorial reduced its human figures to symbols of the 38th Parallel, here King is reduced to an illustration of his wordplay. A figure of speech is beautiful because it calls to mind a mental picture; but to build a scale model of a word picture is to do it violence, and to render laughable in reality what is beautiful in the imagination.

The King Memorial runs perilously close to being not a monument at all, but a book illustration—the visual diagram of ideas generated elsewhere. But it is a good index of where we stand today when it comes to the building of monuments. Allegory requires an imaginative act, and is literary, whereas our culture is uncomfortable with figurative language. This began around 1977, the moment the language censors began to attack phrases like “Man does not live on bread alone,” asking “What about women?” A painful literalism set in, which is hostile to figurative language in speech and to abstract allegory in art. Nowadays we tend to think literally rather than literarily, which explains why Frederick Hart had to portray the American military experience in Vietnam by means of three men of three distinct races—and why a women’s memorial was subsequently added. The fear of leaving someone or something out is hostile to the allegorical impulse, which seeks not to itemize but to generalize, and to speak not specific truths but great truths. It is not surprising that a culture ill at ease with the notion of absolute truth would find it very difficult to make monuments that show urgency and conviction.

What can we do about this? First, we can recognize that it is possible to make a convincing monument with the means of modern architecture. Eero Saarinen showed that it could be done with his Gateway Arch at St. Louis: an exquisite portal that opens to the west, it is our version of a Roman triumphal arch. It is abstract, but its visual logic is direct and persuasive, showing that modern materials and forms are not incapable of suggesting timeless ideas. Second, we can recognize that it is not too late. Just because a world-famous architect has submitted a design does not oblige us to build it. Third, we can remember that greatness is possible. For more than a century and a half, we built monuments with spectacular success. We have only been building them badly for a generation. I look at these recent designs, which are perhaps an honest reflection of our divided and uncertain culture, and can’t help but think we can do better once more.