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Process or Symbol?

What exactly is a memorial? If you are someone who thrives on the sneers of the cognoscenti, try saying that it is the physical manifestation of an abstract idea (such as grief, triumph, or resolution), presented in symbolic terms. You will be told in no uncertain terms that a memorial is not an object but “a process,” an open-ended and indeterminate series of negotiations that can never be brought to resolution. So I learned last year when participating in a panel discussion hosted by WNYC-FM on monuments and memorials in the wake of 9/11 (which you can hear here).

The champion of the “process” concept of memorial was James Young, whose views enjoy great prestige in academic circles. (He was a juror on the panels that chose the designs for both the World Trade Center Memorial and Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial.) His views might be paraphrased thus: In our postmodern age, we no longer possess the collective certainty to make bombastic civic monuments like the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials; we should recognize that there are multiple constituencies and multiple claims on the truth, and that each of these should be given voice in a memorial. The notion that a memorial can effectively symbolize a single abstract concept is the discredited vestige of a simplistic age.

Rather inconveniently for Young, some of these simplistic objects still have the power to speak eloquently and intelligibly. One is the Statue of Liberty, an effigy of which was famously created in 1989 by the Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square. Now that destroyed effigy has itself been re-created in Washington, D.C., to serve as the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, and it is impossible to imagine a more fitting or urgent symbol. It was dedicated last month by President Bush in a ceremony that most media, shamefully but not surprisingly, chose to ignore.

In the end, all that an open-ended memorial “process” can hope to do is to inspire a private reverie within each viewer. To inspire collective action—like the self-sacrifice at Tiananmen Square—one needs a collective symbol. Those enthusiastic about the memorial “process” would do well to visit this moving memorial, two blocks from Union Station, at the intersection of Massachusetts and New Jersey avenues.



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