Statue Whittles Away at King's Legacy

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 10, 2008

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. He's talking about the kind of works that followed from Stalin's 1932 decree "On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations," with charming titles such as "Comrade Stalin With the Leading Workers of the Party and Government Inspect the Work of a Soviet Tractor of the New Type." As planned, the letter adds, the statue of King "would be unfortunate and inappropriate as an expression of his legacy."

That's dead right. It's also no surprise. Lei Yixin, the Chinese artist who is crafting the figure, is steeped in precisely that tradition. Lei himself has done socialist realist sculptures of Chairman Mao, not quite a man in King's nonviolent mold, and has a lifetime stipend from the current Chinese government, not a regime known for its commitment to King-style civil rights. "How can you make statues for Mao Zedong? He's a butcher," said Chinese dissident Harry Wu in a New York Times article last September.

There's a reason the Chinese authorities favor Lei and the moribund artistic movement he represents: Their art speaks of immovable authority and unquestioned propaganda sent down from on high. Is that the language that we want King's monument to speak?

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.

Bringing in the best art from abroad, I said.

The King monument, as planned, is close to as bad as it gets. It's hard to imagine it, or anything even remotely like it, ending up in any serious art museum. During a decade's worth of surveys of significant contemporary art, not one of the thousands of pieces on display has had even distant kinship with the King memorial. The sculpture's mediocrity doesn't exactly honor its subject.

But quality aside, what does this sculpture even say about King, other than that he counts as a really big guy in American history? (Bigger, in fact, than Abraham Lincoln, whose monument leaves the Great Emancipator barely scraping 20 feet.) King's sculpture could just as easily depict any bigwig you can think of: A great union organizer or a corporate titan; a champion of democracy or a preening dictator; a peacenik or a general.

The one thing the sculpture certainly doesn't do is depict King as a courageous agent of change. That's because, as a work of art, the statue is so fiercely reactionary, so deeply committed to ignoring a century of change in our visual culture. If there's one thing art teaches, it's that there's meaning in what things look like. The look of the King sculpture, as planned, talks of turning back clocks. Its style comes straight out of an age when blacks had to sit at the back of the bus.

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Once upon a time, the central function of any monument to greatness was to be a record of the Great One's looks. And that function happened to mesh perfectly with a cutting-edge in art -- with 500 years of different cutting edges -- that centered on discovering new ways to represent. In our age of overflowing images, both function and art have changed. In the 21st century, is there any real chance of King's face being lost to public consciousness? Put the words "Martin Luther King" into the Google Images search engine and you get 646,000 pictures to choose from; on YouTube, the phrase calls up 7,860 videos. The great thing is, that profusion of non-art images takes care of recording the way things look, which frees up the best fine artists to dig deep into the way things are.

A truly great monument to King would distill out the essence of his message and accomplishment (the "content of his character") instead of dwelling only on the skin and muscle and bone he presented to the world. A truly great monument to King, that is, would clearly and only be about this country's greatest champion of civil rights. It couldn't be imagined representing anyone else, with any different values -- someone, say, like an apparatchik of Stalin's or Mao's.

That kind of specificity was the great achievement of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, widely acknowledged as one of the finest public monuments of the modern age and certainly one of the most popular. Its austere, reticent abstraction managed to capture the peculiar complications that its subject came wrapped in.

What would a monument to King look like that was as forward-looking, as change-inspired as the man himself? I've no clear idea. It would probably be figurative, like most of today's best art. Abstraction has lost the power it once had to make us think in terms of big ideas; it's mostly come to have the feel of lobby decoration.

Given how firmly King's memory now lives for us on film, his monument might incorporate some kind of photographic element -- though rendered in a medium that doesn't fade.

Most clearly, it would need to function as a potent metaphor for the courage that King had, for the change he launched and for his importance in our lives. And one potent, easy metaphor for all of that, it seems to be, would be a monument to King that, whatever it might look like, would also be courageous, pioneering, important art.

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