On Sunday (UPDATE: now sometime in September or October), the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial will be dedicated. As this will be the first major memorial dedicated in the Mall area since the National World War II Memorial in 2004, I thought it would be interesting to review the monument and solicit our readers’ views. For those interested in going to the dedication, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation has a FAQ page on the dedication ceremony and a handy walking directions pamphlet.
To quickly sum up my opinion: excellent, and long overdue, idea for a memorial, but it is poorly executed. Let me explain. I’ll be slightly kinder than Courtland Milloy but not by much and in some areas less (BTW: props to you, sir, on the Star Wars reference! Makings of a Millennial this one has.).
When you stop and think about it, why has it taken so long for a national memorial to be built to Dr. King? Arguably one of the most important Americans ever, and certainly one of the most important in recent history, memorializing MLK should have happened long ago. Certainly Dr. King’s importance to black Americans makes such a monument important. We have a statue to Christopher Columbus, which is seen as a monument for Italian Americans, and we have the FDR Memorial, which many people feel is a monument to WWII generation; then why aren’t there other statues or memorials for other groups? Certainly the idea of having a memorial for Martin Luther King is on firm ground.
However, as I said before, I feel the monument is poorly executed, and there are multiple reasons why. Much ink has been spilled on the fact that the sculptor is Chinese, so I will only briefly touch on this. In a time when many Americans, of all types, feel threatened by the Chinese people coming into their economic and political power on the international stage, it shows very poor judgment to effectively say “no American could craft this memorial.” Many people will probably call me out on this point, but remember that this is a national monument. It should not be considered horrible nationalism to think an American could be chosen for this honor.
But probably worse, I think this decision was made on a price point. That is, it was simply cheaper to go overseas. This goes into a long standing issue I have with the Federal Government deliberately taking no part in financing national monuments. I believe this is penny wise and pound foolish for our national identity. And I think Mr. Milloy makes many excellent points in this piece on the topic, particularly his closing line (Milloy’s article should also be read with this one).
I most have issues with the size of the statue. Why is the largest statue in the city, topping out at thirty feet, of a man who was so human? Normally, when a people build a colossal statue of a person, it is to deify that man or woman; that is to say “this person did things that cannot be accomplished by anyone else.” That was certainly not Dr. King’s message or his accomplishments. If anything, he is the embodiment of the idea that ordinary people can change the world together. Dr. King didn’t march alone; he didn’t organize the boycott of the Montgomery Bus system by himself; he wasn’t the only person who spoke at the March on Washington. His message was one of love for all people; that by showing society it’s evil ways, good could prevail. Is that really communicated by a thirty foot statue? His humanity is lost with this statue and it is Dr. King’s humanity that is most important to keep alive.
Lastly, I have issues with the face and the pose of the statue. With regard to the face, this is perhaps influenced by the fact that I am a photographer and there is ample documentation of what Dr. King looked like. Only in passing does the face of the statue look like Martin Luther King. Almost to a person, everyone I have spoken to about the statue feels it looks very Asian. When I see it, I am reminded of drawings of ancient Chinese emperors that I have seen in history books. That’s pretty bad when we know what the man looked like. Of course this is not a new issue in recent history (see the NYFD being accused of rewriting history), but it still troubles many people.
The pose also bothers me. Not because I think of it as confrontational, or that I think Dr. King never crossed his arms (a ridiculous counter argument but it was made), but because it is an awkward pose. The pose is simply not one that I see as noble, traditional, or practical for a statue. This is not a pose for honoring someone. I know that it is based on a photograph of King, but what works in photography and what works in sculpture is not necessarily the same thing.
I do want to end on some positive notes. First, not liking new memorials is more Washingtonian than politics. Very few monuments or memorials have ever been built without harsh criticism. Anyone else remember the anger over the World War II Memorial? Also, opinions do change over time. Many people who said they would never like the WWII Memorial say it has grown on them. And there are similar stories of other memorials, from the Grant Statue to the Lincoln Memorial. And lastly, it’s important to remember that this memorial is art. And art that doesn’t invoke a response is pretty lame art.
With that last point in mind, please speak out on your views! As a student of memorials and monuments, it always fascinates me to see how people memorialize people, places, and events. I’d love to hear your views.