Maya Lin and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial–and the controversy that ensued after its installation–exemplifies the ongoing battle between realism and modernism that tends to dominate the art world. The entire debate began with Jan Scruggs, a veteran himself who founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund for the sole purpose of erecting a national monument to Americans who died or went missing during the war. Scruggs had a few criteria for the monument: that it would be void of political content, funded entirely by private sources, exhibit the names of all 57,939 Americans engraved on some wall structure, and must be sensitive to the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial that bookend it on the National Mall.

In 1981, an open competition was conducted, and participants would enter their designs anonymously to a panel of veterans, artists and architects who made the final decision. They chose Maya Lin, an American undergraduate student at Yale University of Chinese descent, and her minimalist design. It consisted of two walls, each 250 feet long that met at a 125-degree angle, forming a wide “v” shape. The walls were to be made of black granite, which is highly reflective in sunlight, and the names would be listed chronologically rather than alphabetically.

At the Commission for the Fine Arts meeting that year, veteran Tom Carhart expressed his discontent with the design, echoing a larger sentiment among American that the memorial was not literal enough, not heroic enough, not aggressive enough. The families of Americans lost during the war complained that their loved ones’ names were too difficult to find, and made the experience emotionally taxing. Even though the decision was anonymous, Lin was criticized for being neither male nor American (although she was born in the U.S.) and therefore having no understanding of the perils of war. Ross Perot, who had funded the initial design competition, called Lin an “egg roll,” demonstrating the kind of racist backlash that ensued.

Nonetheless, Lin’s memorial stayed. Instead, a second committee chose the hyper-realistic sculpture of Frederick Hart to be placed on the site as a compromise. It depicts three, nondescript American soldiers from different backgrounds dressed in uniforms specific to the Vietnam war, looking longingly into the distance. Next to Hart’s somewhat garish sculpture, Lin’s artwork appears more radical than ever before. It is abstract and black, rather than literal and white (see Lincoln Memorial). It appears to be sinking into the ground rather than towering above, contrary to the convention of sculptures placed on pedestals. It is possible, even probable, that the controversy following the erection of the memorial was not solely about the memorial itself. Disillusioned by the country’s role in the war, Americans had varied opinions about foreign policy and its moral limits. These sentiments may have affected how they felt about creating a memorial to an often frowned-upon military pursuit. In this sense, Lin was a primary victim to an unavoidable reaction from the public.

• If you’ve visited the monument yourself, what was your experience like?
• What does this conflict say about identity and gender politics in the late 80s and early 90s?
• How does the concept of the war memorial complement/counteract the recent history of minimalist sculpture?

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