The King Memorial And A Shadow Of A Smile
Take one controversial design for a sculpture of an American icon, mix in a depressing dose of outsourcing, add a slap in the face to American quarrymen and stoneworkers, and the result is a lot of unhappiness about what should be an occasion for unity and pride--the plans for the Martin Luther King Memorial on the National Mall.
Now, in a quick and superficial effort to quell the uproar and get the $100 million project back on track, the foundation building the memorial has gone to Washington's oracle of taste, the virtually omnipotent Commission of Fine Arts with design changes that in important ways are so slight as to be imperceptible--and everybody's declaring victory, hoping to move on.
As The Post's Michael Ruane reports today, the commission, just a few weeks after expressing serious doubts about the design of the King sculpture that will be the heart of the memorial at the Tidal Basin, is suddenly ready to embrace the plan. What changed?
The one big and noticeable difference is that King is no longer embedded in granite in a stiff, authoritarian manner, but now seems more actively and almost daringly emerging from the stone--a definite step forward in design.
But the memorial's chief architect and the commission are also applauding two far smaller changes that are supposed to address the main flaws in the original design: The reworking of the sculpture smooths away wrinkles in King's face and reshapes his mouth, supposedly indicating something of a smile. If you can see a smile in any of the pictures of the reworked sculpture, you win a prize for generosity of spirit and willingness to accept any explanation that comes down the pike.
But even if the stern King is now a softer, gentler one, that hardly comes close to resolving the real problems with the memorial as it is now planned: The sculpture, both before and after the latest cosmetic changes, fixes Martin Luther King in the public's image as a towering, erect, powerful, formal figure with his arms crossed in a gesture of certainty and obstinacy. What's missing from this sculpture is the elegant blend of wisdom, defiance, poetic force and intellectual rigor that he truly represented. The memorial's version is not only a distortion of history, but a sad redrawing of the many moving pictures that Americans have carried of King over the past half century.
Chief architect Ed Jackson conceded to the commission that there has been controversy over "whether or not Dr. King would stand with his arms folded." Jackson showed commission members a photo of King standing behind his desk with his arms crossed, an image of Mohandas Gandhi behind him. Jackson pointed triumphantly: "Here is picture proof-positive that he was capable of doing so."
I've never heard anyone argue that King was incapable of crossing his arms. Certainly he crossed his arms, and there are formal photos of him doing so. The images of King that are seared into our collective consciousness, however, are those not from his sittings with famous photographers, but from his appearances that moved millions--his sermons, his speeches, even right here on the Mall, where he reached out to the masses in both word and gesture, offering a deep belief in the desire of all men to do the right thing, even if we need a little help in getting there.
The decision to outsource the sculpture to an artist and craftsmen in China is troubling enough, for King's is an essentially American story and we ought to show a little pride in and ownership of that, even as he inspires people all around the world. But far more disturbing than the choice to go with the cheaper artist and the cheaper stone is the decision to portray King in a manner that is deeply reminiscent of the sculptures of arrogant, unapproachable dictators of the communist world, the leaders that the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin grew up with.
Adding a shadow of a smile or smoothing out a crinkle in the cheek does not remotely answer the problem with a statue that will stand for centuries as our reminder of King's daring and grace. The only right thing to do is to start over and demand a piece of art that captures King's spirit--not an image trapped in granite, not a man who has already been to the mountaintop, but an insistent and persuasive dreamer who preaches like Amos, saying, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."
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