American public art is frequently subject to controversy, but over time, the controversy can disappear.  Public art, especially monuments, has been the target of much discussion, often delaying its design, construction and installation. At times, this discussion has even resulted in the removal of a public work of art.  Attitudes toward specific piece of public art change with time, as monuments that faced much delay and controversy during creation became much loved and cherished.

        Controversy accompanied the building of monuments that today are accepted and even loved.  There have been a variety of arguments advanced against monuments, including budgetary, art criticism, environmentalism, religious prejudice, and even, the wishes, both expressed and imaginary, of those being memorialized.  As long as people have different ideas as to the best way to remember an event or an individual, they disagree on what a given memorial should be.  This has been evident throughout America’s history and is manifest in today’s headlines.   These disagreements are often based on differences in the goals of the various warring groups.  Perhaps, Gersh Kuntzman expressed this concept, when he raised the questions “should memorials remember the dead or celebrate the living?” (Kuntzman).

        May people are shocked to find that  many of our most loved  monuments, such as, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and even the famed lions guarding the entrance to the New York Public Library, have faced  considerable opposition and, at times, there completion was in doubt (Gabor 96-101).

        Historically, monument building has run counter to American democratic ideals, although there have been times that America did accept the building of monuments (Gabor 96-103).

        A classic example of recent memory is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Washington Mall.  Maya Lin’s design generated vocal opposition, but because the design created such a moving experience, due in part to its integration with its location on the Mall, that it has become an important addition to the Mall (Kelly 19). 

        Even the recent tragedy of the destruction of the World Trade Center towers has not be exempt from controversy regarding how best to memorialize those that died on September 11, 2001.  Several groups are vocal in calling for the rebuilding of the twin towers of the World Trade Center and there are others that are equally vocal in their opposition to such a rebuilding.  Wyatt states that “The emotions conjured by the image of rebuilt twin towers are as raw today as they were a year ago, both for friends and family members of the victims and for the people who would have the towers rebuilt.”  This is one of the disputes that are influencing the planners and designers for the rebuilding of World Trade Center site. (Wyatt)  Professional architects have been consulted on what to do, but even they disagree on what to do and how to do it.  The architect’s professional journal, Architectural Record, expressed their concern, since in their judgment, architects, not architecture, are determining the plan for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site.  This is a result of state officials trying to please the various groups and individuals who think that their ideas are best  (Stephens 124).

        When a memorial statue honoring the firefighters who died on September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center, a number of firefighters and others protested the design.  They claimed that the artistic change of the racial composition of the depicted firefighters differed from that of the original photograph that was the inspiration for the statute.  As a result of this and other protests, this memorial was abandoned (Kuntzman).

        The newest addition to the memorials in Washington, D.C., the World War II Memorial, was put through an approval process that was to reduce the problems created by controversy and disagreement.  This approval process was an attempt to make the process of building memorials less political, but many feel that it has not succeeded The World War II Memorial plan is finally approved after having been revised to address complaints that the design was too heavy and that it would eliminate some of the remaining green on the Mall.( Hsu and Wheeler). The memorial’s architect Friederich St. Florian defended his design after its design was approved.  He made some changes in the design, after it was criticized on environmental, legal and aesthetic grounds.  Opponents of the design have attempted to stop the memorial in federal court.  Defenders of the design have also been vocal and appear to have succeeded, since the architect had to alter his concept (McVicar B1).

        The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, created two decades ago amid bitter acrimony and much loved, is becoming the subject of dissension and controversy yet again.  Some of the original builders of the memorial, veterans, have proposed a controversial education center to educated visitors to the memorial about the memorial.  "We believe we risk diminishing the original work by adding adjunct structures to this site" (Donald). 

        Controversy does not end with the completion and installation of a work.  It was disagreement with design of Serra’s Tilted Arc in the Federal Plaza in Manhattan that resulted in its removal, even with Serra’s defense that removal would result in the destruction because the Tilted Arc’s location in the Federal Plaza was an essential part of the sculpture.  Serra’s view of public and site-specificity was in conflict with the court’s view and the removal was ordered (Kelly 15-20).


Donald, B. (2001, August 23). Vietnam Memorial Faces Controversy. Associated Press [Online]. 

Gabor, Andrea. “Even Our Most Loved Monuments Had A Trial By Fire”. Smithsonian. Washington: May 97: p96-103. 

Hsu, S.S. and Wheeler, L. (2001, May 23). WWII Memorial on Mall Gets Final Approval. The Washington Post: Pg. B01.

Kelly, Michael. “Public Art Controversy: The Serra and Lin Cases.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism. Temple University, Philadelphia, PA : Winter 1996:  15-22.

Kuntzman, G (2002, January 22). American Beat: Memorial Chic, Newsweek

McVicar, D. M. (2001, June 20). A monumental battle - Architect defends controversial war memorial. The Providence Journal-Bulletin. p. B1.

Stephens, S. (2002). ARCHITECTS without architecture at Ground Zero, Architectural Record Vol 190, No. 7. 124.

Wyatt, E. (2002, November 2).  Longing for a Sept. 10 Skyline. The New York Times, p.B1