The “Washington Post” once called James Reston a “Renaissance Man,” a recognition of his special capacity for writing about his diverse interests. He has enjoyed a five-decade career as a journalist: writing for newspapers, magazines, creating an award-winning radio documentary, writing plays, and publishing books. His latest book, “A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, And the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial,” looks at the nation’s attempts to memorialize the war, while also asking, “Who has the authority to make an official interpretation of a contested history?”
Q: What prompted you to write this book?
A: The genesis of this project was twofold: I’m a veteran myself, and one of my friends is on the Wall, so I’ve always been interested in the Memorial and the impact it has on veterans. Second, I have a cabin in the mountains of Virginia, and the sculptor Frederick Hart lived nearby. I spent a lot of time with him, and we spoke about the controversy over the Memorial. There was a five-year battle over this Memorial, and it’s kind of a miracle that it was ever built.
Q: Tell us about the competition that took place to select a design.
A: At the time, it was the largest competition in the history of the US or Europe. There were 1,421 submissions. It was important that it be handled professionally and fairly. Paul Spreiregen served as the professional advisor for the competition, and he was very proud of the professional approach taken. The competition called for entries that were nonpolitical—that is, that they not address the pros or the cons of the War itself—and that the submissions be anonymous. And that’s part of the interest: out of the blue comes a submission from this 21-year old Yale undergraduate, Maya Lin. It’s amazing.
Q: The competition also required that the entries include the names of the dead.
A: Yes, that’s correct. I think that’s a misunderstanding among the public. Many think this was a brilliant stroke by Maya Lin. But it was actually a requirement of the competition.
Q: In researching the book, you went through all 1,421 designs. Those designs run the gamut of taste and skill.
A: I loved going through those designs! It was an amazing fusion of creativity. The artistic challenge was daunting. What is the artist’s process to imagine a design appropriate for a lost war? Some were brilliant and others, as you suggest, were goofy. The publisher allowed me to have photographs of 16 of the designs, and I chose the designs that reflect the entire spectrum of designs, from unfortunate to brilliant to intriguing.
Q: Maya Lin’s submission was not visually impressive, at least not in my mind. But, as you note, it was the description of her design that was so compelling.
A: Yes. Her visuals are a bit high schoolish, but the language of the submission soars, and I think that’s what worked. The design had an aesthetic of simplicity, and when she was announced as the winner, the professionals came in to make this work.
Q: Many people have seen the Wall in person or in photos, but will you explain the concept of the wall’s design for the readers?
A: It was described as a chevron created from black granite, the latter being important for its reflective properties. It was designed to be below ground, which she believed to be appropriate for a lost war. The names are listed chronologically, with the height of the wall corresponding to the number of casualties over time.
Q: It was a different type of DC monument, and it challenged our concept of what a monument or memorial should be.
A: Yes, and that added to the controversy surrounding the design. A group of veterans was very effective in their attacks, referring to it as a “Gash of Shame.” And this group almost undermined the project. Ultimately, it was agreed that statuary by Frederick Hart would be added and set somewhat apart from the wall. This clash between visions and styles of art was a fascinating aspect of the story. It’s not just a question of what to memorialize the war with, but also, whether you can put two absolutely inconsistent and contrary forms of art together in a shotgun marriage.
Q: Today, the Wall dominates this section of the mall, but as you mention, it is married with Frederick Hart’s “Three Soldiers” sculpture, which is set apart from the wall. Does this “shotgun marriage,” as you call it, work?
A: This clash between artistic worlds very much interested me. I think it’s a little odd, but it works okay. I think the presence of the statues has diminished in importance over time. When I have visited, the crowd around the statues is small compared to the thousands at the Wall. Do I think it is an affront to the Wall? No, I don’t think so. At this point, I think the discussion has kind of devolved into an esoteric discussion between refined people in the art world.
Q: You make a distinction in your book between pure art and public art. What is that distinction, and why does it matter here?
A: With public art, the public is involved, taxpayer money is involved, and public spaces are involved. It’s perfectly appropriate for the public to have a voice in that process, and that the political process be involved. In pure art, the artist can do anything that’s in his or her imagination. People either like it or they don’t, and that’s okay. That’s what art is.
Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.