By Published on .

Whenever this country isn't at war for about an hour and a half, they start up again on the Marine Corps.

This time the enemy is that strutting popinjay, J. Carter Brown, who as a precocious 12 year old, saw for the first time through a limo window the National Gallery in Washington and announced, "Someday I'll be its director." His mother, an art critic, insists he made that remark a year earlier while sailing with the old gent who then ran the gallery.

Whenever it was, in the end J. Carter did get the job. Though not until age 34. These days Mr. Brown is a leading Washington art authority (no, the terms are not mutually exclusive; they only seem that way) and, more to the point, is chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

And, as such, he has something to say about the various national memorials and their design and where they are sited on federal ground. Which is where the Marine Corps comes in.

You know that Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va., the sculpture from the historic Joe Rosenthal photo of the six Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi? Well, since the statue went up in 1954 at the edge of Arlington Cemetery, they've called the place Iwo Jima Park. Except that now, thanks in part to Mr. Brown, a much larger Air Force memorial will be squeezed in there to dwarf the Iwo memorial and disturb what has been until now a pleasant and moving aspect.

Behind the AF deal are such heavy hitters as Joe Coors and Ross Perot. And their monument? "A five-sided aluminum shell within which two Iwo Jima memorials, including their granite bases, could easily fit."

And what does Brown the art expert say about all this?

He calls the Iwo statue "kitsch," defined by Webster as "gaudy trash . . . pretending to have artistic value."

The reason I know any of this is that I subscribe to The Old Breed News, a newsletter that is the official publication of the 1st Marine Division Assn., of which I am a member. The current special edition is entirely devoted to the matter of Iwo Jima Park and this damned Air Force foolishness. And Mr. Brown's aesthetic ponderings, taken down at a 1994 meeting during which the USAF made application to share the park with the Marine statue.

"I mean," said the aesthete, "if we had some Saint-Gaudens still with us, or even Schrade, and we say take the Maryland Avenue site and put up a statue of an airman that would bring us all to tears, I don't see that happening. I think we are going to get kitsch if we do that. And face it . . .

"I mean on the record I would say that the Iwo Jima memorial is kitsch. It is taken from a photograph, it is by a sculptor, even though he was a member of this commission at one point, who is not going to go down as a Michelangelo in history, although it is very effective, largely because of its site."

A site it may now have to share with another, much larger memorial, an aluminum abstraction.

Well, of course, everyone including the Marine Corps commandant, Congress and the usual federal bureaucrats, is getting into the act. Legislation has been introduced in both Houses and eight U.S. senators have petitioned (on March 3) the secretary of the Interior, asking for an environmental study they (and the Marines) hope might persuade the Air Force to choose another bit of land for its salute to Alcoa. While I have been refreshing myself on J. (for John) Carter Brown's curriculum vitae.

He is a descendent of Roger Williams as well as of the chap who founded Brown University. He was Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, studied with Berenson in Italy and is described as "charming, witty, diplomatic." He married twice, to a Mellon the first time (this didn't hurt his career at the National Gallery, pretty much subsidized by Paul Mellon); the second time to a Drexel. That marriage was solemnized at Westminster Abbey; you know, where they bury kings and poets.

So the fellow has credentials. Artistic, that is. From which to sniff at the common soldiery, those rude, licentious fellows we call upon every generation or so to go out and get killed for the rest of us. Can't you actually hear the sneer in his voice when he speaks demeaningly not only of the Iwo memorial as "kitsch," but when he describes that "statue of an airman that would bring us all to tears?"

How precious he sounds, how condescending. And how poor J. Carter Brown must suffer as he goes about this country assessing its "fine arts," when in some small town or urban crossroads such as Times Square, he has to look upon the homespun statue of an American in uniform, some modest fellow long dead, whose folks thought him special and were rather pleased in a small way to have that statue go up, to have their boy remembered.

How fortunate it is that we have authorities like the cultivated Mr. Brown to remind us that such statues are only kitsch . . . gaudy trash.

Most Popular
In this article: