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Mute Point | The Nation

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Mute Point

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Eisenman has an explanation for the absence of any visual cues, and it is one for which I have some sympathy. As he explains it, he was seeking not so much to represent the Holocaust--an impossibility--as to create a certain experience, an experience of nothingness and disorientation: "I was thinking about a field of corn that I was lost in in Iowa when I did it. I was trying to do something that had no center, had no edge, had no meaning, that was dumb." Abstractly, this is a brilliant idea. Here, in the middle of things dense with information--the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, Unter den Linden, the Academy of Art, the ghost of the Berlin wall, the no man's land divided by the wall--is this black hole, a place intended to embody meaninglessness. It is as if he wanted to say to the German people that the Holocaust cannot be accounted for, that it is not part of the meaning of German history and yet it happened. It is an impossibility that actually took place. It is brilliant but too much to ask of anyone that they should say: This is what he is getting at, this is what the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is about! The experience is like being lost in a cornfield!

About the Author

Arthur C. Danto
Arthur C. Danto was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1924, and grew up in Detroit. After spending two years in the Army...

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After all, nobody thinks of a cornfield in the middle of Eisenman's memorial. True, nobody pauses to interpret the undulations, or to ask why the gravestones should undulate. So what do they do instead? They walk back and forth, talking on their cell phones. Or they photograph one another over the tops of the steles. Girls shriek with laughter and wave to one another--I thought of Valéry's line "les cris aiguës des filles chatouillées"--"the sharp cries of tickled girls"--in his masterpiece, Marine Cemetery. Someone laid two yellow roses on top of a stele, someone else a basket with two plants. Some people place a single stone atop a stele. But boys still jump from stele to stele. It is a kind of formal stone garden, with custodians picking up debris.

Underneath the memorial there is a Center of Information, where visitors can learn about the Holocaust. Like the trees, the center wasn't part of the original plan, but Eisenman resigned himself to it. "As an architect," he said, "you win some and you lose some." Still, though the center has the quality of an afterthought, I can appreciate the bureaucratic frustration that led to its creation, given the memorial's failure to convey the appropriate kind of feeling. Great memorials are not mute. Unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Eisenman's work will not help heal the gap between German generations, or between Germany and the Jews, to the extent those gaps still exist.

Kant thought of works of art as "aesthetic ideas"--as meaningful without implying any specific meaning. They prompt the imagination to range over possible interpretations without foreclosing any. "If one person says it looks like a graveyard," Eisenman says, "and the next says it looks like a ruined city, and then someone says it looks like it is from Mars--everybody needs to make it look like something they know." Yet the issue isn't what the memorial looks like but how one is supposed to feel about what it designates. Imagination is not the same as history. Memorials are tied to what happened.

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