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Gans, A. (1987). The War and Peace of the Vietnam Memorials. Am. Imago, 44(4):315-329.

(1987). American Imago, 44(4):315-329

The War and Peace of the Vietnam Memorials

Adrienne Gans

Western civilization has always glorified the hero, the sacrifice of life for the city, the state, the nation; it has rarely asked the question of whether the established city, state, nation were worth the sacrifice.

(Marcuse, 1966, p. XIX)

The present paper is a psychological and aesthetic analysis of the two Vietnam War memorials in Washington, D.C. A recent article in The New York Times Magazine (Freeman, 1985) examined the role of the arts in reflecting the nation's current conceptualization of Vietnam. In its survey of over 45 works in film, painting, sculpture, theater, literature, and television, Freeman stated that “individual artistic efforts point to a fragmentation over the war effort, both then and now”, and that … “we are a nation that could not agree on a single memorial to Vietnam.” The article concludes with Professor Gordon Taylors’ observation that “those monuments are the closest thing we have to a common text—a narrative that we as a nation are still learning to read” (p. 57). This paper will focus on the memorials as “texts” created in a visual language whose units of meaning (c.f. Arnheim, 1954, 1966) include such elements as balance, shape, form, growth, space, light, color, and tension, and whose grammar may be defined by the interaction of these to produce a perceptual experience with conceptual and emotional meaning. Each Memorial is examined in terms of how the translation of the artist's idea into a formal composition matches the specific psychological response it elicits. An additional component of this paper pertains to the interaction of political and psychological dynamics during the proposal and construction of each Memorial.

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