Tomorrow, October 16th, is the dedication of the new memorial dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the Mall in Washington D.C. Usually I write about a piece of art because it is a favorite, or I find it interesting and beautiful. I am sorry to say I do not have positive feelings about the central sculpture in this memorial. Yeah, I know a lot of ink has already been spilled on criticisms of the memorial itself, the quotes that were selected for the walkway leading to the central statue, and the money that went for paying King’s descendants for licensing rights to use his words and images, but I still feel the urge to put my two cents in.
To me there is nothing about this piece that is especially moving, artistic, or that evokes the memory of Dr. King. That’s a real shame, because if anyone deserves a place on the Mall, it’s him. But I find the carving itself to be static, stiff, crude, and without the lifelike details that make a great realistic sculpture. If you want to see a great example of a sculpture showing the human figure partially emerging from a block of stone, look at this. When I think of the photos and films I’ve seen of Dr. King I can picture him gesturing with his arms while he’s speaking, or with his head bowed in prayer, or leaning forward with both hands on the pulpit while preaching, or walking arm in arm in front of a protest march. I’ve never seen a photo of him striking a pose like the one in the statue-arms folded looking stern; and it doesn’t seem to fit his personality. The kindness and humanity that I see in Dr. King’s face; I just can’t find it here. The style of the sculpture has been described as “contructivist” and “socialist realist” and I agree. Those styles can be great art, and they have their place, like here for instance, but that place is not the National Mall. I don’t like the color of the stone either; although it looks white in the photo, it is actually a pale pink granite. I think a warmer gray or brown color would have been better.
As far as I’m concerned, this is the second big strike out for memorials on the National Mall. I was against sticking that ugly World War II memorial right in the middle of it, where it interrupts the sightline to the reflecting pool and Lincoln Memorial, and looks like something right out of Triumph Of The Will.
And of course there is the unbelievable irony that the carving of the statue was outsourced to China. The artist was Lei Yixin. Nothing against him personally, but there are plenty of great artists in this country who do beautiful representational sculpture. Considering all the controversy about American jobs being sent overseas, did the people who decided who would execute this project think about the message they were sending? It’s extraordinarily tone deaf. The stone used to make the statue is also from China-why? It would have been a beautiful piece of symbolism to use granite from Vermont, the first state to outlaw slavery, or from New Hampshire, the state King mentioned in his “I Have a Dream Speech” when he said “So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.” Or how about using some granite from Elberton, Georgia, in Dr. King’s home state, where there is a huge granite industry? Elberton claims to produce more stone for monuments than any other city in the world, and actually calls itself “the Granite Capital of the World”. Well, apparently they saved $8 million by outsourcing the project to China, out of the total $120 million cost.
Not only was the statue made in China, but Chinese laborers were brought to the U.S. to assemble the memorial, much to the distress of the the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers union, as told in this article from in the Washington Post.
In September, the foundation building the $120 million memorial on the Mall promised in writing to use local stonemasons to assemble and install the 159 blocks of granite that will make up two massive sculptures at the center of the site, including one bearing King’s likeness.
But when construction of the sculptures began three weeks ago, it appeared that the foundation had reneged.
The article goes on to say:
The use of Chinese workers at the memorial is also deeply unsettling for a union that has had a hand in building every major monument in Washington since the end of the Civil War.
“Why do they need to come over to do the work when there are so many people here who can do it?” asked Scott Garvin, president of the Washington area local of the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers union, whose membership has dropped in the past three years from 2,000 to 850 because of a decline in building projects. “It’s kind of a thumb in the eye.”
Again, nothing against them personally, but Dr. King was an American hero, and American stonemasons and bricklayers and laborers should have had the honor of building his memorial. And there is no doubt that he would have wanted it to have been built with union labor, since he died while supporting sanitation workers right to form a union.