Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On the subject of the MLK Memorial

As the former chief art critic of the Washington Post once noted over three years ago:

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the few undoubtedly, undilutedly great figures of the 20th century. Here's a radical idea for truly doing justice to the greatness of his memory: Give him a monument that might go down in history as an equally great work of art.

According to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the 28-foot-tall statue of King now being prepared on a work site in China, for eventual placement in a memorial on the Mall, doesn't fill that bill. As reported yesterday, the commission, which has final say in all such projects, recently concluded that the latest model for the sculpture evokes the socialist realist art of Stalin's Russia and Mao's China -- "a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries," as the commission's chairman put it in a letter to the foundation raising funds for the memorial.
Of course giving King, or anyone for that matter "a monument that might go down in history as an equally great work of art" is not an easy assignment, as the only judge and jury there is time, not contemporary artists, critics or intelligentsia.
Photo Credit Courtesy Lei Yixin

Back then Gopnik made it clear that "for the record, I'm not on board with those who complain that the King monument is being made by a foreigner. Americans have a great tradition of bringing in the best art from abroad and (eventually) making it their own: The Statue of Liberty was designed, engineered and financed by Frenchmen."

That is 98% correct, although a little research into how his example's seminal idea, construction and delivery was initially received by the American press and public does yield a few similarities with the King issue. With the passage of time, though, Gopnik's example eventually becomes a good one. But it's also not a good example in the sense that Liberty was a gift from the people of France, designed, built and paid by the French.

Remember the huge controversies and arguments raised at the time over the Viet Nam War Memorial?

In fact, it seems like the first thing that happens when a public memorial, any memorial, gets planned and discussed, is that huge chasms erupt as the various agendas, ideologies and issues arise.

Historically, huge differences of opinion and artistic controversy seems to be part of the process. It was for Lady Liberty, it was for Maya Lin's elegant wall, it was for the recent WWII Memorial, and it has been for several years now for Dr. King's statue.

It was and it will always be a difficult process to select a national level capital area statue or monument for Dr. King; that much we already know, but the current Maoist-Stalinist piece of mierda that was constructed inside the Chinese BORG was not the answer, and I stand by my three year-old position that this statue is now my least favorite monument in the Mall area -- too bad that it honors one of my favorite and most inspirational characters in Terran history.

What's with that weird "look" in King's face in the Lei Yixin statue anyway? And what's with the arms crossed and one hand holding a pen? (is it a pen?) - it's like Lei Yixin took Bob Dole's body and put a King head on it, where MLK is staring at the sun and squinting in discomfort?

I don't like it; I don't think that it contains the "it" that makes a statue cross over from being a cold stone object to the embodiment of the subject matter, like Micheangelo's beautiful David or Daniel Chester French's massive seated Lincoln in the Mall's Lincoln Memorial.

But what bugs me the most is that the statue does "look" like it belongs in Stalin's Russia or Mao's China or Hitler's Germany - homes to some of history's worst mass murderers and the anti-thesis of everything that MLK stood for.

Just my opinion, and for those who like the statue: let's just honor the man for which it stands and disagree with the vehicle itself.


Rogerrr said...

I love it

I don't really care about subtle nuances that much -- I'm just glad he's there honored among the presidents. Even if his expression looked like he was thinking "oh man, who farted?" I'd still love it.

I was there Monday at 11:30 just after it was a gorgeous day.

Now the WWII memorial... wow....that is ugly to me and I think WWII veterans deserved a much better memorial.

RBenavides said...

I have seen several statues of MLK,
including one in San Antonio. Why
do they never look like Mr. King
and what is worse, they don't even
feel like Mr. King? Not even close.
This one is no exception.


Anonymous said...

not great art of a great man ,the black man gets screwed again.bad design of site too lacks focus .deserves attention and honor this is not

Anonymous said...

I think the statue has redeeming qualities that weren't mentioned here. Like MLK's work, it's unfinished - smooth surfaces run into rough rock - and this speaks truly to race relations in the US. It has the feel of nature-inspired Chinese minimalism, which I think makes it unique among our monuments and appropriate to the pure force for good that MLK was. To mistake it's style for something subversively representing oppressive communist regimes is too selective, in my mind. Let's not forget it has the feel of Chinese art in general and there's really no reason to go further than that.