Is George W. Bush a postmodernist? Judging by the September 11 memorial planned for the Pentagon, the answer, sadly, is yes.
According to Julie Beckman, one of the memorial's designers, September 11, 2001 was a unique day in American history, so her design should likewise be unique. And it will be. A two-acre plot will be carved out of a parking lot: onto this area will be planted 75 maple trees. So far so good. There will be no grass, however. Gravel instead. And the memorial? A scattering of 184 aluminum "benches," each with halogen lights that will somehow illuminate at night pools of water that will be located under each bench. Why 184? Because that's the number of people who diedminus the hijackers, of course. The name of a victim will be inscribed on each bench. So one can rest one's behind on the person's tombstone, as it were, and contemplate the profound lack of significance of it all.
In the battle of the giants versus the gods, the giants have won. Note how every element of the plan establishes the particular at the expense of the universal:
1. September 11 was unique, unrelated to any other day, or to history in general. And therefore, according to the historicist way of thinking, it calls for a unique design, unlike anything conceived before. (Although the idea of benches bears a suspicious resemblance to the chairs of the Oklahoma City memorial.) The insistence on the particular rules out representations of the ideal: hence the rejection of sculpture, military insignia, or any elements associated with classical art, which were the reliable standbys in earlier, less enlightened times. Architecture, bereft of its precedents, ceases to be a profession. The architect becomes an "artist," a person who is admired by all for his uniqueness and creativityi.e., his nuttiness.
2. The memorial is not dedicated to a group of people sharing a human nature, but to scattered individuals, isolated in death as they were in life. (That these people, as individuals, will be forgotten in the course of a few decades does not deter the business of tagging each bench with the name of a particular person.)
3. Because there is no axis of symmetry and no focal point of interest, each visitor will experience the memorial from his unique point of view. The person who comes to mourn and the person who comes to eat a ham sandwich will be equally welcome.
Most disturbing about this work is its location. When a postmodern artifact finds its way into some fashionable apartment or some white-walled gallery, where everyone is speaking French, one can shrug it off. But when it's placed in front of an American public building, with the intention of articulating the significance of a great historical event, the alarm bells ring. The technicians in our military headquarters are (let us hope) good at their work; but so were Hitler's men. Unless wise and good leaders direct our generals, we are lost. Postmodernism, which denies truth, cannot be the basis of a wise and good regime. Yet, with the tacit approval of the President of the United States, one of its emblems is now destined for the Pentagon.
Back in 1850, the United States faced a crisis greater than that of September 11. The North and the South were at odds over the question of slavery. The future of the Union was in doubt. A compromise was worked out, one that postponed the Civil War for a while. America celebrated by extensively rebuilding its Capitol. A great dome, which is also a great symbol, was designed as its final embellishment. This dome should remind us of a time when our art and our politics complemented one another. A time, sadly, far off.