By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS NO GREATER ART THAN THAT WHICH DEMANDS THAT THE VIEWER BECOME A PARTICIPANT, an active co-creator of a bond between creator and user. That is the ineffable power that pervades all great art; the ability to draw you into a world not your own, a world which, in an instant, becomes your own. This elusive quality moves art from mere depiction to a kind of partnership arrangement. It’s so uncommon, so rare, that, when we see an instance of it, the very nature of the effect is radiant, unforgettable.
There are many attempts along Washington, D.C.‘s National Mall to name the nameless, to five utterance to the wordless qualities that define greatness, vision, loss, courage, passion, and pain. America‘s noisy, erratic journey through its young life have left trails of triumph and tragedy, paths that artists have illuminated with the various memorials and monuments which ring the mall from east to west. Some elevate presidents to the level of demigods; some mark the passage of noble laws; others, like the Vietnam War memorial, evoke deep feeling with a reverent stillness, and my favorite, the more recent Korean War Memorial, captures the quiet terror of setting out upon the grim errand of battle in a way that is eerie, and yet elegant.
There are two major elements to the memorial, dedicated in 1995 just southeast of the Lincoln Memorial. The first is reminiscent of the wall of names that comprise the solemn Vietnam memorial, but is slightly different in that it is a wall of faces, the effigies of nameless veterans of the conflict, scanned from candid photographs and etched into a stone slab that lines one side of the site. The other, and far more haunting feature is that of a silent patrol of soldiers, its members drawn from each branch of service in the Korean conflict, setting out in a cautious recon march across an open field. The statuary figures are impressive, averaging about seven feet in height. All of the soldiers cast their nervous gaze about the area as they seem to emerge from the relative safety of a copse of trees that border the monument site. The men are exhausted, grim. There is no call to duty in their poses, no grand gestures of heroism, no “follow me, boys!” rallying cry. Sculptor Frank Gaylord has created a squad of the Spirits Of Thankless Jobs Past, laden with gear, shrouded in ponchos, their steps weary and woeful. Get close enough to them and you can almost fall into step among them. Unlike the church-like quiet of the Vietnam memorial or the majestic marble of the WWII memorial, the Korean shows real men who have been sent to an unhappy, uncertain task, then consigned to the shadows, in what history has since labeled “the forgotten war.”
No majestic slogans mark the monument; only the cautionary sentence “Freedom Is Not Free” serves to warn the visitor that every act undertaken by politicians and kings has a real cost for real men. That cost is also recorded on the monument, with the dead, wounded, captured and missing totaling 172,847 Americans, not to mention the losses of the other twenty-two United Nations members whose soldiers comprised the total war effort.
To stand at many of the National Mall’s war memorials is to deal in abstractions…..patriotism, truth, sacrifice…noble words, noble ideals. To stand at the Korean War Memorial is to feel the blood and bone of war, its terror and tension, its risk and reality. It is the greatest kind of public art, because the public are destined, always, to become a vital part of it.
In the line of fire.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.