Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Modern Beauty- For Stina

United States Air Force Memorial, Washington D.C.

View from inside United States Air Force Memorial
Photo Credit: Constructor

Jimmy Akin, has a recent post entitled "But Is It Art?" which gives modern, abstract art only begrudging respect next to more classic "masterpieces" such as paintings by Caravaggio. As an attempt to win more converts to abstraction, I’m treating you to a gentle art history lesson. As a special thank you for her support, I chose a Washington D. C sculpture that should become close to Stina’s heart.

Designed by James Ingo Freed (architect), the Air Force Memorial Sculpture is comprised of three stainless steel spires that curve upwards on a bluff above the Pentagon. The sculpture is “abstract.” Rather than recreate a realistic copy of an airplane, the memorial seeks to give a general feeling of “flight” or the “flying spirit of the Air Force.” The shape of the spires is modeled on the smoke flares from the tails of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbird Demonstration Planes as it performs its famous bomb burst maneuver.

The sculpture is “different.” It takes some “getting used to.” But here's why I’m glad the architect didn’t choose to commission a giant bomber plane in the realistic style of Caravaggio.

A mere sculpture of a plane, while technically impressive, could never fully communicate the wonder of flight. Airplanes are not wonderful because they have a lot of flaps and tail wings. Airplanes become poetry in motion only when they fly. Man’s ability to soar with the birds is one of the wonders of the last century. Yet how can the artist take a still statue and convey “movement?” The Navy has the sea & the Army the land. Yet how can you show the “air” for the Air Force?

The answer that Freed devised was to take one striking image, the smoke plume from the Thunderbirds, blow it up to an enormous size, and place it in a strategic location. Gazing at Freed’s design gives the viewer the same “ah” factor that would come if we were spectators of actual Air Force Pilots. We admire the precision and the agility of the pilot’s flight. The three spires also represent teamwork, unity, and brotherhood. The placement of the sculpture over the Pentagon is vitally important. This is the one building in Washington D.C. wounded by the 9/11 attackers. Gazing at the Air Force Memorial, I’m reminded of why I’m personally so grateful to Stina’s husband and his comrades. The Air Force grants us “protection.”

Modern Art sometimes demands that we viewers take a little more “context” to our viewings. Knowing more about the intent of the artist will enhance your enjoyment. Or maybe all that is necessary is that we give up the idea of what art “is supposed to look like” and impart a little more child-like innocence into our artistic gaze.

The Air Force Memorial is currently my three-year old son’s favorite landmark in D.C. We pass it regularly on Route 365 on our way to weekly Rosary Group and visits to Great-Grandfather. Next time we see this sculpture, in addition to admiring it’s beauty, we’ll be adding our prayer for Stina’s husband all of the brave members of our armed services.

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for the brave men and women who protect our country. May their guardian angels protect them from harm.


  1. Abigail, I cannot tell you how touched I am by this post. Thank you so much! And my husband appreciates the prayers (I told him about it first chance I had this morning). I have not yet seen this monument, but now am even more excited to do so! What a wonderful way to start my day!

    God bless you!

  2. I think the main opposition to abstract art isn't so much, "It can't have significance; or be meaningful" but rather the feeling that it didn't take a highly skilled person to manufacture it. People realize they can't paint a Mona Lisa or sculpt a David...they feel more able to make curved pieces of metal or throw paint at a wall.

    I enjoy some abstract art- I really want an explanation of it though. "Normal" art has more of an inbuilt explanation (even though I prefer expl. for them too) and so it's easier for many people to connect with. I know appreciate the D.C. memorial after the explanation for it. I still don't think it took a great artist (skill wise) but I can appreciate the symbolism and artistic expression.

  3. Oh Joshie, you break my heart. "Anyone" could figure out how to balance three pieces of metal 216 feet into the air? "Anyone" could figure out how to symbolize the might of the Air Force by throwing some lines into the air?

    Here's one more small nudge to get you to reconsider widening your artistic viewpoint. Today, everyone loves the Impressionists. You can buy Monet's waterlillies on bookbags or note cards. A 100 years ago, NO ONE came to the Impressionists art shows. The were just blurry canvases which showed a gross lack of craft. "Anyone could throw globs of paint on a canvas and call it Impressions of a Haystack." We now understand of course that the Impressionists where on the forefront of color theory. Each dab of paint was carefully placed next to each other to recreate a specific "impression" within the eyes of the viewer.