Remembering Pearl Harbor

Today, Waco is finally unveiling the first part of the long-awaited Doris Miller memorial, commemorating a local hero who was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Here’s what I wrote back in 2013 about the ongoing efforts to create it.

Franklin Roosevelt referred to December 7, 1941 as a “date which will live in infamy,” and indeed there’s much about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 72 years ago that still inflames our sentiments. But as surely as the years pass, the infamy associated with that date, like that from most battles, attenuates, and the living are left with the duty of commemoration—not of any villainy involved, but of the valor displayed by those who fought.

This crucial transformation of perspective is of the sort Abraham Lincoln crafted in his Gettysburg address, and in similar fashion, today we remember Pearl Harbor through those who there gave the last full measure of devotion.

Of all the heroes from December 7—that is, of all those people whose actions under fire were motivated from a sense of selflessness—none was less likely than a sailor named Doris Miller. His story is inspiring, but, as is necessary in the heroic, it has its deepest root in the commonplace.  Miller was a native of Waco who dropped out of high school during the Great Depression and joined the Navy at age 19.  He was soon assigned to the battleship West Virginia as a mess attendant. The morning of December 7 Miller was on duty below deck. Within moments after the attack began, seven torpedoes had struck the West Virginia, plunging the ship into chaos.  Miller rushed topside to his battle station—an antiaircraft gun amidships—only to find it had already been destroyed.

Miller and the ship’s communications officer then rushed to the bridge to assist the mortally wounded captain. After moving the captain, Miller manned a machine gun (on which he’d not received training) and returned fire against hundreds of Japanese planes. When the attack ended he began the grim work of pulling wounded sailors from the oily water.

In May 1942, Miller received a commendation by the Secretary of the Navy and was awarded the Navy Cross, the first African American so honored. The citation praised his “distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor.”

He found himself something of a celebrity. His image was used in naval recruitment posters throughout the war, and the War Department sent him stateside to give speeches on war bond drives. Eventually he was transferred to duty on an escort carrier and died when it was torpedoed and sunk in 1943. In 1973, the Navy honored him by naming a frigate for him, and in 2010 the post office remembered him with a stamp.

Now an organization called Cultural Arts of Waco in Miller’s hometown is raising funds to build a national memorial to him. The city of Waco donated two beautiful acres downtown along the Brazos River for a memorial site, and a national search was undertaken to select a landscape architect to design the memorial and a sculptor to create the statue that will be at its heart.

Successful artistic commemoration is more sought after than achieved. The selflessness inherent in Miller’s legacy is conveyed not through gigantism (think Sam Houston towering over I-45 in Huntsville) but through intimacy. Nor does it emerge when the individual is abstracted to the point of being a kind of vague Everyman. This in fact is what created such a fuss around plans to build an Eisenhower memorial in Washington, D.C., with even Ike’s grandchildren feeling compelled to weigh in. Architect Frank Gehry’s initial designs somehow managed to make no reference to Eisenhower’s role in WWII nor to the man who later became president of the United States.

A hero is one who embodies the abstract idea of selflessness, so an effective memorial needs to involve both abstract and traditionally representational elements. This is precisely what the planned Miller memorial in Waco will offer its visitors: a statue of Miller at just over life size situating the man himself within an abstract layout that implies his naval service.

Once the memorial is completed it will be one of the most distinctive in the country to any serviceman, and a fitting tribute to Miller and, by extension, all those who served on December 7.



President Benjamin Harrison in 1889 on appreciating American veterans

“I had impressions both pleasurable and painful as I looked upon the great procession of veterans which swept through the streets of this historic capital to-day; pleasurable in the contemplation of so many faces of those who shared together the perils and glories of the great struggle for the Union; sensations of a mournful sort as I thought how seldom we should meet again. Not many times more here. As I have stood in the great National Cemetery at Arlington and have seen those silent battalions of the dead, I have thought how swiftly the reaper is doing his work and how soon in the scattered cemeteries of the land the ashes of all the soldiers of the great war shall be gathered to honored graves. And yet I could not help but feel that in the sturdy tread of those battalions there was yet strength of heart and limb that would not be withheld if a present peril should confront the Nation that you love. And if Arlington is the death, we see to-day in the springing step of those magnificent battalions of the Sons of Veterans the resurrection. They are coming on to take our places; the Nation will not be defenseless when we are gone, but those who have read about the firesides of the veterans’ homes, in which they have been born and reared, the lessons of patriotism arid the stories of heroism will come fresh armed to any conflict that may confront us in the future.”

“And so to-night we may gather from this magnificent spectacle a fresh and strong sense of security for the permanency of our country and our free institutions. I thought it altogether proper that I should take a brief furlough from official duties at Washington to mingle with you here to-day as a comrade, because every President of the United States must realize that the strength of the Government, its defense in war, the army that is to muster under its banner when our nation is assailed, is to be found here in the masses of our people. And so, as my furlough is almost done, and the train is already waiting that must bear me back to Washington, I can only express again the cordial, sincere, and fraternal interest which I feel this day in meeting you all. I can only hope that God will so order the years that are left to you that for you and those who are dear to you they may be ordered in all gentleness and sweetness, in all prosperity and success, and that, when at last the comrades who survive you shall wrap the flag of the Union about your body and bear it to the grave, you may die in peace and in the hope of a glorious resurrection.”

President Benjamin Harrison, August 12, 1889

Having an eye for the contemporary

Almost 50 years ago, the art critic Leo Steinberg published an essay with the evocative title “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public.” In it, he addressed what might be called the “understanding gap” between working artists and the public, along with the growing tendency of the public to be confused—if not completely put off—by what artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were then creating.

Decades later, that plight hasn’t diminished much. Looking at a lot of what is celebrated today as art, the public can register only confusion. If the plight is any less than Steinberg diagnosed in 1962, it may only be because the audience for contemporary art has simply shrunk so much that it no longer registers as part of the public in any significant way.

We are usually comfortable thinking of the paintings, sculptures and other things in museums as art, but what about the works being created today? Are they “art” in the same way? Is there an element of time that has to elapse before they become “art?”

It can sometimes seem a little presumptuous to say that contemporary art is museum-worthy without letting the added element of time slowly do its leavening work on the judgment of those in the know. Why should we rush to bestow the label of “Art” on, say, something that looks like nothing more than a florescent light hanging at a diagonal, just as we do on a portrait of St. Paul by Rembrandt? In 300 years will people be marveling at that? (But 300 years ago did they marvel at the Rembrandt?)

“Contemporary art is constantly inviting us to applaud the destruction of values which we still cherish,” Steinberg wrote, “while the positive cause, for the sake of which sacrifices are made, is rarely made clear.” He actually wrote this sentence thinking primarily of artists who sometimes feel like their own established styles are threatened when art spins off in a radically different direction. Matisse, for example, called Picasso a hoax and an outrage in 1907. A year earlier, however, an established painter named Paul Signac saw a new canvas by Matisse and thought it was disgusting. Matisse had “gone to the dogs,” he wrote a friend.

Yes, it’s true that every generation has its outrages, and today both Matisse and Picasso are regarded as brilliant and visionary artists, and their work, even though familiar, still captivates. But it’s also true that one of the more troublesome elements in our society is its impatience. Processes that by their nature take time are now somehow seen as illegitimate. Our hunger for immediate satisfaction in this regard can come in two contradictory ways: on the one hand it can be a demand that contemporary art be acknowledged now and held on a level with the Masters of the past. On the other hand, if a work is somehow difficult or an affront to our tastes (as Picasso was to Matisse), we want immediately to toss it aside as nothing more than a purposeful insult to what we hold dear.

Either position does no favors to art. Having a good eye for the contemporary, whether it’s a painting hanging in a gallery or a work of public sculpture that you drive by on your way to work every day, means being willing to take it on its own terms initially, and only over time begin to measure it against the great weight of the past. It takes an odd and perhaps paradoxical combination of patience, acceptance, and discrimination. But that’s the recipe for appreciating contemporary art.

This column originally appeared in the Waco Tribune-Herald on September 29, 2011



George Orwell on language and thought

“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.  It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.  It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

–George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946


Remembering Patrick Dougherty in Waco

I often wish we still had our Patrick Dougherty sculpture here in Waco.  For those of you who don’t know the name or the story, Dougherty is an acclaimed sculptor whose works are in museums, public parks, university campuses, and botanical gardens all over the world.  His medium is cut saplings, which he harvests from the area in which he’s working and weaves into towering, evocative, and/or whimsical shapes.  Each of his works is unique and designed to fit into the environment where it sits, indoors or out.  They’re both visually and conceptually striking.

In 2010, Cultural Arts of Waco brought Dougherty to town using a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create a piece in Cameron Park for the park’s centennial celebration.  He chose a spot near Pecan Bottoms close to the Brazos and set to work making a sculpture that he would christen “River Vessels.”

Dougherty, an Oklahoma native who’s lived in North Carolina since childhood, has a Masters degree in hospital administration but decades ago gave himself over to making art.  Now 72, he continues to create his memorable sculptures all over the world.  This year has found him doing pieces in Montreal, South Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, California, and Commerce, Texas.  Worldwide, one encounters his art from Sweden to South Korea.

An intriguing element of his work that distinguishes him from most artists who specialize in public art, is the collaborative process he uses, enlisting people from the community in which his art will be placed to help him at every step.  The Atlantic recently published a series examining “the possibilities and pitfalls of mentorship” and interviewed Dougherty because of this unique relationship with those who help bring his artistic concepts into reality.  The magazine described him as being “a boss, a mentor, and a humble peer” all at the same time.

I recall sitting on a picnic table and watching him work with his crew of volunteers here in Waco, and the rapport he formed with them all in just a short time was truly impressive.  They seemed as dedicated to the project as he was.  Dougherty took his role as a mentor seriously and showed a particular interest in the art students who had come out to work with him.  “You can’t give young people true advice,” he said to the Atlantic. “You just plow ahead and let them watch you do it.”  Once they start in on the process with him, he makes a point of being encouraging. “I don’t like to walk around and look at someone’s work and say, ‘I would do something else,’ or, ‘That’s never going to work.’”

Dougherty understands that because of the nature of his medium, his work doesn’t last forever.  “I really like that essentialness of having something that has to be looked at now,” he explains.  For him, the real value of his art comes in the experience of creating it with a group of people he’s only recently come to know.  The “nature of a good sculpture,” he said earlier this year in Commerce, is it “makes people feel enlivened, and they want to go look at it.”  A good sculpture is “one that causes personal associations.”

I still feel my acute disappointment when his piece here in Waco had to be removed long before it would have lived out its days.  It didn’t last long enough to become much of the focal point that good public art can be, and sadly we missed out on experiencing a lot of those personal associations that civic life, at its best, can give.