A powerful federal arts commission is urging that the sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. proposed for a memorial on the Tidal Basin be reworked because it is too "confrontational" and reminiscent of political art in totalitarian states.The sculpture — you can see the model of it at the link — is to be 28 feet tall. That's 8 feet taller than the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Monument, but Lincoln is sitting down, so the scale is somewhat smaller. If you've ever seen the Lincoln statue in person, you know it's huge, much bigger than it seems in photographs. It's actually quite weird, I think. But why shouldn't the MLK monument be on a similar scale? And once you decide you want a large statue of a man, what is going to prevent it from looking like social realist sculptures? It's inherent in the concept. If social realist statues bother you, maybe you shouldn't order a colossus.
The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts thinks "the colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed statue recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries," commission secretary Thomas Luebke said in a letter in April.
By law, no project like the memorial can go forward without approval from the commission, the federal agency that advises the government on public design and aesthetics in the capital.
A model of the statue has been built in China. The project's chief architect, Ed Jackson Jr., huddled with advisers this week in Ann Arbor, Mich., to discuss ways to address the commission's objections before sculpting of the granite statue begins.
"We said: 'Okay, this is what the commission said. How best can we achieve that and retain what we have accomplished thus far?' "
It is the second time in recent months that the memorial to the slain civil rights leader has come under fire. Last year, critics complained after a Chinese sculptor known for his monumental works of figures such as Mao Zedong was selected to create King and other elements of the memorial in China.
That said, perceptions of this particular colossus may be affected by 2 things:
1. The knowledge that the sculptor — Lei Yixin — is Chinese and made big statues of Mao Zedong.
2. Racism. You see a black man and you worry that he's angry or on the verge of a violent outburst. This man looks "confrontational."
Now, are these inappropriate considerations that we need to put aside in order to judge the statue properly? It's not obvious.
As to influence #1, the choice of the sculptor has already taken place, and it's not fair to reject him now for what we knew of him then. Nevertheless, we may expect him to express American values and even to exaggerate those values so that an average viewer who knows the sculptor made Mao statues will not see anything Maoist about the MLK statue. The sculptor has got a deficit to make up, and we ought to think about that as we judge his work. That's the argument that it's acceptable to not to overcome influence #1.
As to influence #2, you know very well that you should not be racist. But perhaps we should take into account that people viewing the statue are human and will therefore perceive a statue of a black man through whatever racism remains in their thought patterns. If there is to be a statue honoring a black man, perhaps the sculptor must make a special effort to avoid a depiction that prompts any racist perceptions. That's the argument that it's acceptable not to overcome influence #2 in judging the statue.
Now, with that in mind, what do we think of the Commission's criticism?
Its general design was approved by the seven-member federal commission that year, based on drawings of the Stone of Hope that showed a more subtle image of King, from the waist up, as if he were emerging organically out of the rock, the commission said....So the large block of stone is crucial to the design. It's abstract and metaphorical. I have to agree that it looks like the sculptor wanted to depict a freestanding human figure and mainly annoyed at the restrictive block of stone connected to it. Yet that itself is metaphorical. Those Michelangelo sculptures Luebke is talking about were slaves. Their oneness with the stone expressed slavery. The MLK image should not relate to the stone in quite the same way. I think the real issue here is whether the thing is well sculpted. To my eye, it is not. The figure-stone relationship is not interesting or beautiful.
Commission members said the sculpture "now features a stiffly frontal image, static in pose, confrontational in character," Luebke wrote. They "recommended strongly that the sculpture be reworked, both in form and modeling" and cited "precedents of a figure emerging from stone in the works of sculptors such as Michelangelo and Rodin."
The commission objected to what it perceived as the loss of the subtle way King seemed to be coming out of the stone in the drawings, Luebke said.
"I think that the metaphor of Dr. King being merged with the natural forces of this stone is absolutely essential to avoid colossal monumentalization," commission member N. Michael McKinnell said at the April 17 meeting.
But the emerging-from-the-stone problem is less troublesome than the crossed arms. Jackson (the architect) defends the stance, and notes that they had a photograph of MLK with his arms crossed like that. But of course, there are innumerable photos of MLK and most of them, I'm sure, would never suggested themselves as a good model for a large statue. The point is the sculptor and his team liked the attitude of confrontation. They wanted MLK the "warrior." One consultant said they rejected the notion of MLK as "pacifist, placid, kind of vanilla." But crossed arms expressed resistance and even rejection. Much as MLK had cause to express such things in his lifetime, the question is what one expression do we now want carved in stone. Shouldn't he be more positive and welcoming? Shouldn't he love us now that we love him?
Or are we only thinking that way because we haven't gotten used to it?
Would you reject the brooding, downcast Lincoln sculpture if you were seeing it for the first time?
Oh, good Lord, he's so depressed! His clothes are horribly sagging. And he's slumping in that chair with his big, gawky hands hanging over those big Roman fasces. Fascism!