I am a regular reader of The Nation on-line (I can't bring myself to subscribe to the print version ever since my disappointment with their lack of coverage of Dennis Kucinich's campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2004), but I rarely read the art and literature review articles. I made an exception this time, though, since the particular piece of art being reviewed--Berlin's center-city Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe--is located only a few short blocks from where I work. In his review, Arthur C. Danto expresses some disappointment with the final result, a grid of gray concrete blocks of varying height. Designed by Peter Eisenman (and standing across the street from the new U.S. Embassy under construction!), the memorial is "minimalist" to the extreme, evoking a great emptiness. Here is an official website with some good photographs of the memorial...the domed building in the background is the Reichstag, the German parliament building rebuilt after unification.
I often pass by this memorial on my way to the sprawling Tiergarten (large center city park) for a run in the late afternoon. Always there are groups of tourists, exploring around the "steles" (as Danto calls them, more knowledgeable than me about sculpture/architecture terminology), sometimes with children playing on them. The fact that one portion of the square dips down significantly in elevation creates, at least for me, a strong evocation of the feeling you get at the Vietnam Veterans memorial in Washington, D.C. The similarity between the two events--the senseless loss of life on a large scale--perhaps makes such a connection appropriate. In a way, then, even though Danto seems displeased by the lack of specificity (telling the particular stories of people) in the memorial, I actually find it a good result. It manages to transform a very specific memorial to one of the greatest atrocities in the history of the world into something more universal.
Now, some people won't like that at all, and I can understand the desire to have something even more specific about the murder of Jews in the Holocaust in Germany's capital. (Just think for a moment how well it would go over in the U.S. if we created a memorial--no matter how minimalist/abstract--to the murdered American Indians victims of U.S. expansion right in the heart of the city, or perhaps even memorials to the slaughtered Vietnamese or Iraqi victims of American aggression...) So I think it is right and appropriate that the memorial bear the name of a specific act that is important for the Germans reckoning with their own history. But at the same time I like the possibility of recognizing the common bonds of all humanity and the universal evil of senseless violence and suffering.
On a related issue, especially for those Americans who believe "it can't happen here," please see a must-read report on the atrocities committed by agents of our own government. At the moment, senseless acts of brutality are still on a relatively small scale (compared to the Nazis), but I was raised to believe that Americans do not believe in torture. If you don't want the U.S. government torturing in your name, speak out against it now! I especially appreciated the call by Ray McGovern for religious leaders and people of faith to stand up against torture. These are not just a few isolated incidents. This is widespread and it has been happening over the past few years. We must stand united as Americans against this shameful stain on our national conscience (do we still have one?)