The Power of Aesthetics: Reflections on Maya Lin’s The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial

This is the third of four articles about the Alternate ROOTS Power and Aesthetics Learning Exchange, held in Washington D.C. on September 21 and 22. Other articles can be found here and here. 58,000 names engraved in the panels of polished stone … you walk down into the earth and each section of the wall has hundreds of names … you walk further and there are more names and more names … the emotional power of Maya Lin’s The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial can be overwhelming. That a twenty-one year old Asian American woman got the commission to create this project while still a student is an incredible story. That her artistic vision, her aesthetic was so utterly right for this work, so of it’s historical moment, is just as inspiring. The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial is a stunning work of art, one that was also very difficult for some people to accept at the time. James Watt, the then Secretary of the Interior, was one of Lin’s primary opponents. He wanted to place a sculpture of three male soldiers in the middle of the memorial, which would have relegated her sculpture to being merely background to the “real” figurative sculpture. In addition to Watt’s opposition, some Vietnam Vets struggled with having a woman, and an Asian American woman at that, selected for this project. And while uprooting oppression was not part of her “mission statement,” Lin’s perseverance in defending her aesthetics did, in fact, effectively push back against outmoded thinking and dominant power structures. Her art and her way of working inspired us equally. jeffJeff Mather is a Georgia-based public artist, teaching artist & environmental sculptor. He has been a member of Alternate ROOTS since 1991 and has had his community-based public art projects funded by ROOTS’ Community/Artist Partnership Program three times. He is a facilitator with Alternate ROOTS’ Resources for Social Change.  He is also a lead artist, co-founder, and board president for Atlanta Partnership for Arts in Learning and the lead artist for the Woodruff Art Center’s Digital Storytelling Program.

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Alternate ROOTS supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition or spirit. We are a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together. As Alternate ROOTS, we call for social and economic justice and are working to dismantle all forms of oppression—everywhere.