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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."

By Marc Fisher |  June 20, 2008; 8:21 AM ET
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I've said that I am not sculptor, but I've tried to follow the discourse over the monument for Dr. King (politically and socially charged as its been). Most journalists and columnists reference the more popular TV images of Dr. King, but I'd ask that everyone take this man at his measure of his full life adn experience...just as we should discover Malcolm X (Malik El Shabazz) and other examples...not as a young man, but at the full measure of a full life...of experience, wisdom, and learning.

No one should consider if its important that Dr. King's sculpture is smiling or has the arms crossed without reading his very last public speech in Memphis in 1968 is support of the AFSCME Sanitation Workers' Strike (this can be found at

On that day (second to his last) Dr. King spoke of the plight of American workers being treated like modern day slaves...his tone was serious...not jovial. He spoke in detail AND biblical metaphor of the constant threats against his life and family - he lived with this almost his entire adult life. I think that last public speech should be reflected "sculpturally" and perhaps it cannot.

Posted by: Donny | June 20, 2008 9:23 AM

Unlike Donny, I am a sculptor and a Granite carver. I would very much enjoy seeing Mr. Fisher carve a granite sculpture with its arms outstretched. I won't be holding my breath though, or maybe I will. Since the properties of granite and the laws of physics on this planet conspire to make such a sculpture virtually impossible at the scale of the MLK memorial, perhaps Mr. Fisher could succeed in carving one on Mars. Or, better yet, perhaps Mr. Fisher could accept the fact that he doesn't know what he is talking about, stop raking muck, and make the minimal effort required to learn a few simple facts before boring us all with his ignorant opinions.

Posted by: Patrick Huss | June 20, 2008 10:38 AM

They should do one in clay first, so that this doesn't happen again!

Posted by: John Smallberries | June 20, 2008 11:08 AM

They did many in clay. The commission claimed that the sculpture deviated from the maquette(the small-scale model).

Posted by: Patrick Huss | June 20, 2008 11:16 AM

Hey Lou Dobbs, how about linking us a photo of the new design so we can decide for ourselves?

Posted by: EP Thorn | June 20, 2008 11:19 AM

The arms will have to be closer, the stone will fracture otherwise and we may end up with a Dr. de Milo. And, I agree, we should have his sculpture done here in the USA. We have so many gifted artists, I am ashamed that this is not so.

Posted by: Maria | June 20, 2008 11:20 AM

(while the photo linked above shows a profile version indicating the change in position with respect to the granite, it doesn't show the 'smile')

Posted by: EP Thorn | June 20, 2008 11:22 AM

Most speech coaches and teachers of public speaking would agree that standing with one's arms crossed is a sign of insecurity, and defensiveness, and therefore a gesture to be avoided. I would say that having his arms folded is the opposite of "certainty." King grew up in an education system that still valued oratory and rhetoric. He understood how to use gesture effectively. It's a shame his statue will not reflect that subtle understanding.

Posted by: TG Pelham | June 20, 2008 11:38 AM

TG Pelham, perhaps they should have hired some forensics coaches to produce this sculpture. What with their magic ability to make rock defy gravity, I am sure then it would have been to everyone's satisfaction.

Posted by: Patrick Huss | June 20, 2008 11:50 AM

Hey Pat,
Whys so abrasive?

Posted by: toneye | June 20, 2008 12:06 PM

Yesterday you promised your thoughts on the Night Owl's shakedown of WMATA; what happened?

Posted by: 20th St. & Pennsylvania Ave., NW | June 20, 2008 12:13 PM

First of all, its Patrick.
Admittedly I am getting very frustrated with people that think that some obscure objection they have to the pose somehow trumps the irrefutable reality that it is physically impossible to do what they want. Anyone can point fingers and write posts about how this or that should be different, but when you're the guy who has to actually do it, you don't have the luxury of ignoring reality.

Can I ask you people something? Is there anything more symbolic of America than the Statue of Liberty? Is that in any way affected by the fact that it was produced in France by a > French man? No. Would anyone be making comparisons to sculptures of facist dictators if this were being carved in Germany? I sincerely doubt it. This story is not about this sculpture, its about sinophopbia and racism. There is a very talented, competent, and TINY community of granite carvers in this country and I never heard one of them complain about this project being awarded to a talented, competent Chinese sculptor. Most of the American sculptors are smart enough to avoid any project that requires the input of the Commission of Fine Arts. Or, if they weren't before this story broke, they are now.
If you guys want a monument to Dr. King and aren't satisfied with this one, then go carve your own. Do you want one with its arms outstretched? Then you should do it in bronze. But there is something sick and ironic that anyone would use a monument to a man that is a martyr to racism as a vehicle to promote their own racist views.

Posted by: Patrick Huss | June 20, 2008 12:48 PM

Patrick, Liberty was a GIFT. Besides, did you forget China was communist? How do you think King would feel about us using a communist country that jails people for prostesting?

We don't live in Germany, at least I don't. Germans can do what they want.

We can't carve our own... King is not a "public figure" he never ran for office. Thus, we can't just make a suclpture of him without the okay of the family.

Anymore questions?

Posted by: Henri | June 20, 2008 1:05 PM

and yes I would be bothered if it were carved in Germany.

Posted by: henri | June 20, 2008 1:06 PM

Well, my suggestion to hire forensic coaches for the memorial was obviously facetious, but I think they could be very helpful to Henri. Yes, Henri, I have more questions. What does China being communist have to do with this? Other than you hate them because they are and so you object to any Chinese person because of that. The sculptor is being paid, right? His assistants are being paid? That sounds an awful lot like capitalism to me.
Please read this article published YESTERDAY in this paper about Americans jailed for protesting. So by your standards, at least as you attempt to project them onto Dr. King, Americans shouldn't be allowed to carve this either.
What do you mean Dr. King was not a public figure? Of course he was. As any celebrity with a slander lawsuit knows, one does not have to run for public office to be a public figure in the eyes of the law. So, yes, you could carve one without the family's permission.
You're assertion that you would also be bothered if this was carved in Germany misses the point of my statement entirely. I said no one would be comparing this sculpture to those of facist dictators if it were being carved in Germany. I didn't say no one would be bothered by it.

Posted by: Patrick Huss | June 20, 2008 1:27 PM

You're should be Your.
And in previous post sinophopbia should be sinophobia.

Posted by: Patrick Huss | June 20, 2008 1:30 PM

Aren't there any artists in America?

Posted by: De | June 20, 2008 1:48 PM

Look! You guys don't even know what exactly do you want, stretched or folded, the most important thing is to capture King's physical expression e.g. image from a famous speech or his "I've a dream..." expression, just simple and "ordinary" which the future generation can instantly recognize or associate with...then get the world best sculpture to carve it, if money is not an issue. You see, as a foreigner, Statute of Liberty represent the American Freedom, which we dream over here day or night, even the Tian Ann Men incident have a duplicate, who care about where or who make it, well, maybe some artist?

Posted by: Bruce Lee | June 20, 2008 2:05 PM

Have it made with him in bed humping some gal who's not his wife.

Posted by: Stick | June 20, 2008 2:51 PM

You're not going to get a cohesive, focused decision from any of the clowns involved in the perpetuation of Dr King's monuments. Look at the dishonorable way they've let his original memorial deteriorate, by absconding with the taxpayer-provided annual maintenance budget. I'm talking about the King family here. Disgusting.

Posted by: skulldugger7 | June 20, 2008 3:39 PM

America has no artists.

Posted by: Jake | June 25, 2008 11:53 AM

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