Controversy at MLK Memorial

The process of building a new memorial in Washington, DC always creates controversy. The forthcoming Martin Luther King Jr., National Memorial is no exception. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which has veto power over the design, recently announced its objections to a model of the mammoth statue planned as a centerpiece of the site. The statue, at 28 feet intended to be significantly taller than Lincoln’s at his memorial, depicts Dr. King standing with his arms folded and a very serious expression on his face (see the model here). In a breathtakingly terrible choice of words, the Commission worried that the statute so envisioned is too “confrontational in character.”

This objection comes on top of earlier protests at the choice of a Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin — some saying that a black person or at least an American should design the statue; others criticizing the use of Chinese granite instead of the good ol’ American kind, and others objecting that some of Lei’s earlier work celebrates Mao Zedong.

The new criticism claims to be aesthetic rather than political, but the two are so fundamentally intertwined in this setting that art cannot distinguish itself from politics. Take, for instance, the following from a Washington Post blogger:

Leaf through hundreds of photos of [King] and you see him standing before oceans of Americans, one arm raised to the sky, his mouth open in a call to unity. He reaches forward, rallying, cajoling, explaining. Or he is leaning in, head to head with Lyndon Johnson, and you can almost hear King, the gentle voice, the rock-hard logic. … Nowhere but in this proposed arms-crossed sculpture is King seen in the arrogant stance of a dictator, clad in a boxy suit, with an impassive, unapproachable mien, looking more like an East Bloc Politburo member than an inspirational, transformational preacher who won a war armed with nothing but truth and words.

Such controversy is par for the course. Several large memorials have been built on the National Mall in the last 15 years, including very large and prominent commemorations of the Korean War(1995), World War II (2004), and the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt (1997). WIkipedia quotes a writer in the Philadelphia Inquirer attacking the “pompous style” of the World War II Memorial as the sort “also favored by Hitler and Mussolini.” Disability activists agitated for a statue of FDR in which his wheelchair was visible (such a statue was later added on to the memorial). Most famous of all, remember the howls that greeted Maya Lin’s visionary design for the Vietnam Wall. And of course many have — quite correctly, in my view — criticized all these memorials for their giant scale and cacophony of cliche elements (Flags! Fountains! Inscribed quotes! Stone pillars representing something! Niches for reflection!). In this nifty illustrated essay for Slate, Witold Rybczynski tours the DC memorials and highlights, among other things, how didactic modern memorials have become, a feature surely shared by the plan for the King Memorial, as illustrated here.

Yet eventually all these were built; all are visited. More fundamentally, I wonder if this process of arguing over the nature of the memorial is itself part of its legacy. The debate captures, in miniature, the process of a culture communally shaping the narrative of its past. And in that vein, the thoughtful and diverse comments to the blog post quoted above are fascinating. For the most part, these are the kinds of comments I wish you saw more often on blogs. The very first commenter agrees with the aesthetic objection to the statue but doesn’t care if it’s “Made in China,” then someone a few down says “outsourcing of the memorial to China is appalling” but likes the design, and so on for screen after screen. This thing is a Rorschach blot!

And in the end, isn’t that a pretty good model for a memorial?

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