|Owner||Sports and Exhibition Authority|
|ADA Services||Ramps from the riverfront park aid with access to the memorial. The sculptures are located on the ground, and can be touched.|
Much of the symbolic landscape of the public art scene in Pittsburgh has resulted from individual visions and efforts, channeled through community involvement and paid for from many funding sources. There is always some government oversight of these efforts and often financial and in-kind contributions. Yet there is no “ideological” certification that sculptures, memorials, murals and other forms of public art have to pass. In that way one can speak of “symbolic pluralism” in the public art landscape; it is a symbolic universe produced by the competition between many voices and ideas. Public art perhaps demonstrates an idealized vision of democracy; there is no final “right” answer, only an answer that was successful in the marketplace of competing notions. Symbolic pluralism, however, can also lead to the celebration of ideas or the depiction of circumstances that are at odds with history or the sentiments of a particular era.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Pittsburgh (375 North Shore Drive, between the Steelers and Pirates stadiums on the Allegheny River) is an example of art rising up from an organized effort by a specific interest group, and it communicates a sentiment that reflects one of many possible ways to think about the war.
The sculpture is an abstracted hibiscus flower pod that forms a canopy over five sculpted figures. The hibiscus is an Asiatic symbol of rebirth and regeneration, ideas at the root of religions based on ideas of reincarnation. A wind chime also develops an Asian theme: ringing bells are an Asian way to remember the dead, and in Confucian or Buddhist Asia the dead are integrated into the lives of the living in vivid ways. Finally, the floor of the memorial contains the words, in Vietnamese and English: “Grant us Peace.” The peace sought after is from the end of war and peace within the soul of the returned soldier.
The five figures under the hibiscus flower include a white solder re-uniting with his wife and young son. She looks up at him, imploringly, seeming to ask: “Will it be OK?” The son reaches out joyfully to his father; his arm is in mid-air. The soldier has a ‘thousand mile stare’; his eyes are empty and he looks both ancient and young. He has seen and done things that cannot be understood by anyone who has not been to war, and this war in particular, where battles were fought to kill the enemy, not to gain land, had its special horrors.
The second ensemble under the hibiscus flower is an African American soldier entering the space on one side; several yards away a woman awaits him with arms outstretched. She is described as the soldier’s mother but could also be his wife. She welcomes him home and he approaches her tentatively with the ambivalence also communicated by the white soldier, seeming to say: “I’m oh so glad to be here, but you can never know what I experienced, or what degree to which my humanity was compromised.”
It is extremely difficult to commemorate a war that the U.S. “lost,” a war that led to the deaths of more than two million Vietnamese (a large percentage being civilians) and 58,000 American soldiers. The memorial in Washington is the essence of understatement: a huge plank of black granite on which the names of those killed are inscribed, and the understatement of the memorial evokes strong reactions. Thousands leave their own memorials and memories at the wall that are now collected and displayed in a separate museum.
The Pittsburgh memorial is of a different spirit. It attempts to right a wrong, that Vietnam veterans were not celebrated or welcomed home in a formal, celebratory way. There are reasons for this: every soldier who fought in Vietnam served for either twelve or fourteen months and thus they arrived and left on their own individual calendar. Each platoon, company, regiment (etc) was made up of individuals who were each fighting a war of survival for the remaining days of their normally twelve month assignment. When they survived, they came home to a country that was torn apart in protest over the war. Their contribution to the body-count war was often not celebrated, and in fact was questioned even in the cinema and novels of the era. So the Vietnam Veterans memorial attempts to right this wrong by ignoring the larger issues of the war and simply saying: “welcome home.” A poem by the vet most responsible for realizing the memorial, T. J. McGarvey, is inscribed on a plaque at the memorial, and it reflects these sentiments. The poem reads:
Welcome home to proud men and women
We begin now to fulfill promises
To remember the past
To look to the future
We begin now to complete the final process
Not to make political statements
Not to offer explanations
Not to debate realities
Monuments are erected so that the future
might remember the past
Warriors die and live and die
Let the Historians answer the political questions
Those who served -- served
Those who gave all -- live in our hearts
Those who are left -- continue to give
As long as we remember --
There is still some love left.
By Douglas Harper, sociologist
Douglas Harper, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus at Duquesne University and President of the International Visual Sociology Association. He has written extensively on visual culture and his most recent book, Visual Sociology, is a comprehensive overview of the field.
George Danhires (b. 1942) is a sculptor from Kent, Ohio. He is a veteran and served as a Marine from 1959 to 1963.
Ron Bennett (b. 1941) is professor emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Art.