A few years ago I first saw the documentary, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. It was made in 1995 by Freida Lee Mock, and it documents the career of Mara Lin, the architect who designed the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, the Yale Women’s Table and many other wonderful buildings. Her most famous buildings have political and well as aesthetic motivations, that elicit strong emotions in people based on how they encapsulate their age. Maya unexpectedly won the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial while a Yale student, and it threw her into a huge storm of controversy. The controversy over Maya Lin’s design showed the raw emotional wounds that still had not healed when it erupted in 1980, and Maya Lin’s finished memorial showed the power of art to affect people and touch upon important issues of society.
When Maya Lin won the design contest to build the Vietnam War Memorial at the age of 20, she became the center of a great controversy. Many people protested that Lin’s design was too simple, that it look like a big black scar on the earth. Quite a few people were offended that a Chinese American student was the architect of a major American memorial of an Asian war. Lin was accused of being a communist by conservative political columnist Pat Buchanan. In one of the angriest scenes in Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, a Vietnam veteran named Tom Carhart talked about being spit upon when he returned from duty in Vietnam and addressed his anger that the Lin design didn’t fully honor the suffering of the soldiers of the time. Maya Lin defended herself by saying that any design of a Vietnam War memorial would’ve evoked controversy, that it was only 6 years since the war had ended and the emotional wounds of that war were still fresh. She testified in a Congressional hearing and defended her design, and eventually she was able to complete her vision of the memorial.
Lin wanted her memorial to evoke tears in the viewers, to act as a vehicle for veterens to begin to heal from their experience. One of the most touching scenes in Freida Lee Mock’s documentary is the beginning scene, watching the reaction of veterens as they look at the names of their fallen comrades in the black wall. In a particular scene, two veterans are looking at the name and one veteran exclaims, “Look at all these names!” and he begins to cry. What most moved about these scenes was how the memorial touched these veterans, how it honored the individuals who were killed by making them more than just a statistic. A veteran mentioned that a name may not mean much to one person, but it would mean much to another. Lin put the names in chronological, rather than alphabetical order, to help individualize the names. If the names were in alphabetical order, then a loved one would be lost in a sea of Smiths or Jones or whatever that person’s last name is, and it would depersonalize that individual. It would take a person longer to look up the name and find it if the names were in chronological order, but the process would be worth it to a family member or a friend.
Over twenty years later, the Vietnam War Memorial is the most visited memorial in Washington D.C. Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision does a wonderful job of showing the gratitude of many veterans towards Maya Lin and her memorial design. Some people say art is not really important. When I hear this, I always think they don’t what they’re talking about. As Vietnam War Memorial shows, art can play a role in pushing people in new directions and in seeing things in a different way. It can help people to empathize in other people, and it can help heal. In the middle of Freida Lee Mock’s documentary, we see a march of Vietnam veterans and the appreciation of the crowd towards their sacrifice. This was an appreciation that Tom Carthart and other veterans deserved upon returning home but didn’t receive because of the controversies of the Vietnam War. I think Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial helped the public change their attitudes to help appreciate the Vietnam veterans.