MAYA LIN (1959-)
The Reception of the Wall

“Diane Carlson Evans, who served as a nurse, described the grotesque reception that she received upon returning home: “The attitude of the public was beyond belief. The protesters, rioters, draft dodgers met us at the airport and spit on us, threw eggs at us. Friends, co-workers—even some families—did not want to talk about the war with us. . . . I was bitter, disillusioned and felt like 22 going on 80.”  from The Power of  a Name by Allen Greenberg

After losing a war, a nation must first mourn and then heal. This powerful truth was understood by a young woman in her early twenties, an Asian-American who had never been to war, Maya Lin. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is sometimes called “America’s Wailing Wall.” A rare event in the art world, the “Wall” marks a paradigm shift for public sculpture and for public art. Before Maya Lin, war was commemorated with pride and flourishes which celebrated heroism; After Maya Lin war and other tragedies were to be contemplated and grieved.

Americans have always won their wars, from the Revolution in 1781 to the Second World War, and then came the inconclusive Korean War and the humiliating defeat of the Viet Nam War. One of the sub-texts of the wars of the second half of the twentieth century is that Americans, after bringing the Japanese to their collective knees, were outfought by Asians in a war of choice. In the early 1980s, it was not yet well understood that proxy wars, in this case between America and the Soviet Union and Red China, were not wars winnable in the conventional sense but guerrilla wars could never be won. Even while the Soviets struggled in their own chosen quagmire, Afghanistan, even as the Israelis attempted to control the Arab population, the efficacy of insurgency was unclear. A new age was dawning, described by some as the “decline” of the West and by others as a new political coalition of women and people of color was just beginning to evidence the results of twenty years of affirmative action. But with the victories of the Second World War still strong in living memory and the Civil Rights era in retreat, the (white male) American public was not ready for the the winner of the competition for the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to be an Asian-American woman, Maya Lin.

Perhaps if a white male had done the controversial design, there still would have been consternation, if only because the Memorial was an unfamiliar form: abstract and black. Perhaps no matter who designed the Memorial, there would have been questions because the war had been so unpopular and so recent, a scar on the American psyche. In 1981, the year of the competition, feelings were still raw and awarding the commission to a young Asian woman was virtually unthinkable. War aside, it would be useful to look back to this sheer novelty of a person from the margins who had habitually been barred from the profession and from public commissions actually winning a blind competition. A woman and an Asian had beaten some of the most famous architects of the time.  A young Asian was a woman who had never fought a war had won a competition to build a memorial for white American soldiers who had did fighting Asians.  The fact that Lin, a quiet intellectual, was not concerned with the War, but with death and the act of mourning, was not understood, neither by the veterans nor by the public.

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Maya Lin (1959-)

As Marita Sturken pointed out the real question is one of how historical is written. As she wrote in 1991,

Cultural memory represents the many shifting histories and shared memo- ries that exist between a sanctioned narrative of history and personal memory. The formation of a singular, sanctioned history of the Vietnam War has not yet taken place, in part because of the disruption of the standard narratives of Amer- ican imperialism, technology, and masculinity that the war’s loss represented.’ The history of the Vietnam War is still in the process of being composed from many conflicting histories, yet there are particular elements within these often opposing narratives that remain uncontested-the irony of the war, the pain and subsequent marginalization of the Vietnam veteran, and the divisive effect the war had on American society.  

History, or cultural memory, is a narrative we tell to ourselves. What is not said is as important as what is said. History, as a construction, is written by victors who have the power to compose or to represent, and silences those in the margins. The Viet Nam War was already etched in the consciousness of the public as less than a dozen searing images by Nick Ut an Eddie Adams and Malcolm Browne. This was a war of sacrifice of brave young men (and women) who died in a war that, even before it was over, was labeled as a “bad war” by a growing majority of Americans. The problem faced by Maya Lin was a rare one: how does a culture remember a lost war? The nearest precedent was the American Civil War (the origin of Memorial Day) and how the former slave states rewrote their defeat into a “glorious cause” that would one day be won and “the South” would “rise again.”

The Vietnam veterans sponsoring the Memorial competition gave the entrants only a few stipulations: the work had to be “reflective” and “contemplative” (not bombastic), unpolitical and had to harmonize with the surroundings, the flat stretch of the Mall. Maya Lin’s design elegantly avoided the obvious confrontation with the War itself and focused instead on the human cost: the dead who would never come home are simply named on the Wall. Death is difficult to face. In recounting her thought process, Maya Lin stated,

My design for a World War III memorial was a tomblike underground structure that I deliberately made to be a very futile and frustrating experience. I remember the professor of the class coming up to me afterward, saying quite angrily, “If I had a brother who died in that war, I would never want to visit this memorial.” I was somewhat puzzled that he didn’t quite understand that World War III would be of such devastation that none of us would be around to visit any memorial, and that my design was instead a pre-war commentary. In asking myself what a memorial to a third world war would be, I came up with a political statement that was meant as a deterrent.

Thinking of a split geode remembered from her childhood, Lin in effect, cut into the ground, carved out the side of an imaginary tomb. By pointing to the psychic wound of the (male) nation in a time where racist and sexist insults were far more permissible than today, the young woman was verbally assaulted. But the powerful art community and most of the Veterans stuck by her selection and by the choice of the jury. Lin defended herself and her concept with courage and dignity, but the clamor against the Wall’s shocking design—“a gash” in the earth–and dark color—“black, the universal color of shame”–forced the government to demand a resolution to the argument between representational and abstract sculpture. After an African-American general pointed out that “black” was not the color of disgrace, the complaint lost credibility, and a compromise over the Memorial was reached.

The Wall seems so perfect and so inevitable today that it is hard to imagine any other design fulfilling the criteria of the commission so perfectly–and that is possibly why Lin was continuously supported: she solved an unsolvable conundrum. That said, the (premature) public clamor had to be appeased with a traditional gesture towards the existing horizon of expectations. A well meaning gesture of patriotism, an American flag flying from a tall pole, actually obscured and dwarfed the underground Wall and had to be moved from the front to the side of the Memorial. A white male sculptor named Frederick Hartt, who had also never been to war, was asked to craft a representational group of three soldiers—one of each, a white, a black, a Hispanic– to be cast in heroic bronze.  At eight feet tall, the statue were also taller than the Wall and was finally put at the entry point, where the visitors came into the site. Here was where the public paused to find the name of their loved one in the book called the “Directory of Names.” The changes to the surrounding site allowed the Memorial itself as designed by Lin to remain unchanged. But the actual making of the Wall continued to be politicized. The granite, for example could not be taken from Canada, a nation that had given sanctuary to draft evaders, but had to be obtained from India.

After the initial compromises to the site had been reached, Lin herself had to fight rear guard actions against the architectural firm that would become the firm of record. The Cooper-Leckey Partnership wanted the Memorial to be white and thick. There was also some sentiment to put the names in alphabetical order, meaning that it would be impossible to figure out which “John Smith” was your son. Maya Lin’s idea of a chronological listing was retained, as was her idea of a thin granite black granite slab engraved with 58,286 names.  The visitor can use the Directory at the entry to the Wall to find which section of the wall the specific name is located, carved out in chronological order. It was very important for Lin that each name have its own special place in time. Once the name is located, the ritual of mourning continues. Then one can go to the section and Park personnel will “rub” the name (a piece of tracing paper is placed on the name and is rubbed over with a graphic pencil) for the visitor and give it to the grieving relative.

“I want to make a place, not an object,” Lin stated.  Despite the anger that greeted the design of the Wall, the Memorial itself was an immediate success with the public. Maya Lin had one goal: “to make people cry,” and the people who saw the Wall cried from the day it opened to the public in 1982.  President Reagan, who disapproved of the Memorial, did not attend the opening ceremonies or the parade the Veterans gave for themselves to take the place of all the victory parades that did not happen for them. The parade and the reaction of the public to this moving memorial can be seen in Freida Monk’s documentary, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision and this film makes it clear that once the public saw the Wall it understood the Wall. Writing years after the documentary that actually helped her understand what she had been through, Lin remembered,

I felt that as a culture we were extremely youth-oriented and not willing or able to accept death or dying as a part of life. The rites of mourning, which in more primitive and older cultures were very much a part of life, have been suppressed in our modern times. In the design of the memorial, a fundamental goal was to be honest about death, since we must accept that loss in order to begin to overcome it. The pain of the loss will always be there, it will always hurt, but we must acknowledge the death in order to move on.

People suddenly had a place to mourn the dead sacrificed in a war that, even by the late sixties, seemed wasteful and futile. Today, Viet Nam is one of American’s major trading partners and it has become increasingly difficult to explain why young men and women must die in political wars. But the dead died in good faith and they must be and deserve to be mourned.  Lin makes the point that if you cannot mourn, you cannot heal and go forward.  The Wall changed the way architects and artists regarded memorial sculpture, understanding the lesson that a young woman had taught them—that trauma and grief cannot be illustrated.  Only abstract forms allow the visitors to express their own private feelings.

Maya Lin’s Wall is a remarkable achievement not just because it provided an occasion for a national carthesis, but because it is one of the rare occasions when an artist’s concept was unchanged from inception to execution.  The Viet Nam Memorial proved to be a paradigm shift for memorial architecture, impacting funerary design to present day, from the Oklahoma City National Memorial to the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. After September 11th, Americans looked immediately to Maya Lin to build a suitable memorial to the national trauma. Lin demurred and served as a juror for the design instead. Today the Wall is the most visited site in the world.  People have left so many pieces of memorabilia at the Wall as offerings to the dead and to their country that a museum space at the Smithsonian is devoted to these objects.  Although the vitriol against Lin, as an Asian and as a woman, has long since died down, and although she has become a national icon, there are still those who are not afraid to express racism and sexism and a lack of understanding of what America is, a nation of immigrants, when discussing the Memorial.

“I have visited the Viet Nam memorial and have mixed emotions about it.  I would never have built a memorial like that.  I don’t like the idea it was not designed by an American,” said Thomas Moorer, Commander and Chief of the Pacific Fleet and former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War. Perhaps the words of her teacher, art historian, Vincent Scully at Yale, would be more fitting, “Imagine the courage it took.  The fiber.  The word for Maya Lin is courage.  And effrontery.”  But it is Maya Lin herself who should have the last word, “An artist struggles to retain the integrity of the work so that it remains a strong clear vision.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

[email protected]

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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