I love statues. Astoria’s Doughboy monument reminds me of the World War I memorials one sees in the smallest English towns.

Statues and memorials evoke the collective memory of our culture.

Some of my favorites are in Portland. Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln in the Park Blocks across from the Portland Art Museum and the gilded Joan of Arc in the center of a southeast traffic circle. The elk near Portland City Hall.

Pendleton has a marvelous statue of Sheriff Til Taylor, who was killed in a jail break. Portland’s Roosevelt and Pendleton’s Taylor were done by the same eminent New York sculptor, A. Phimester Proctor.

The newest statuary that captures public imagination is at Major League ballparks. Statues of the immortals at many new stadiums such as Busch in St. Louis, PacBell Park in San Francisco and Milwaukee’s Miller Park evoke the more romantic era of baggy uniforms.

If you follow statuary, you know there is controversy surrounding the Dr. Martin Luther King memorial that was unveiled on the Capital Mall in 2011. There is heated debate over the prospective memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

One of America’s more outspoken art commentators, Michael J. Lewis, has written a useful critique, "The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials.” An art professor at Williams College, Lewis delivered this lecture to Hillsdale College in March.

Lewis is especially critical of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and is similarly biting about the proposed Dwight Eisenhower memorial. Summing up his criticism, Lewis writes: “These aren’t the men we knew.” (to read the Lewis lecture, see hillsdale.edu/imprimis)

The essential contribution of Lewis’ treatise is this simple definition: “...(A) monument is the expression of a single powerful idea in a single emphatic form, in colossal scale and in permanent materials, made to serve civic life.”

For that reason, Lewis faults the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. My wife and I would disagree with Lewis. It does violate the “single powerful idea” rule that Lewis sets out. But it is quite affecting. At its entrance is a depiction of Roosevelt in a wheelchair and a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt saying that polio humanized Franklin, by putting him closer to the common man. At the moment we entered, a couple with their young son in a wheelchair were looking at the wheelchair-bound Roosevelt. Our tear ducts opened.

The theory implicit in Professor Lewis’ complaints is that as cultures acknowledge their diversity and splinter, it becomes more difficult to create monuments with “a single powerful idea.” Hence, anti-smoking sentiment forced the removal of Franklin Roosevelt’s trademark cigarette holder.

If you live in Washington, D.C., the fun is discovering memorials that are off the beaten track. Surprisingly, one of the little noticed memorials lies at the very base of Capitol Hill. A monument to the Union Army of the Civil War, its central feature is Gen. Ulysses Grant on a horse, under a broad-brimmed hat. Grant’s profile exudes the utter fatigue of seeing the violence of a very long war.

Truly off the beaten track is the Korean War Memorial. It is a set of sculptures of soldiers in formation, moving through tall grass. We thought it was a brilliant and spare depiction of what a few men went through in that forgotten war.

While in Seoul, South Korea, a few years ago, my wife and I toured the museum of the Korean War. Inside that vast building, there is a memorial that I believe fits Lewis’ definition of a single powerful idea. The sculpture is a large teardrop, formed from the dog tags of United Nations soldiers who died in the war. A spotlight makes it glisten.

I suppose the largest and most profound war memorial I’ve seen is outside Leningrad. It marks the hill where Hitler’s army was stopped during World War II. This huge column reminds an American that Russia suffered an enormous death toll in that war, well beyond ours.

— S.A.F.


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