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Huh. I didn’t know they were working on a Martin Luther King memorial on the Mall in DC. But they were, and here it is. Opened yesterday.

As a piece of civic monumental art, I really, really like this thing. It’s beautifully modeled. And — because beautiful is not enough for the modern artard — it’s also conceptually neat.

From the Dream speech, it’s a play on the line, “out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” You can see there’s a sort of mountain of granite in the background, and King’s rock is flying forward out of it, and he is emerging from the rock.


It isn’t often that I like modern civic art. Most of it is long on concept and short on art.

The really astonishing thing? The commission was given to a Chinese artist, Lei Yixin. I am totally not going to rag on them about that; I think it was a surprisingly mature decision from an area of civic life not known for mature decisions (O, the contemporary angst that Lady Liberty was a frog).

As the committee head put it:

“We chose him because we really believe that Dr. King’s message is true that you should not judge a person by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character,” said Johnson. “In these terms, we are thinking artistic character.”


Oh, there was drama. Lots of it coming from disappointed American artists, especially ones of color, but none of them had experience in stone work at this scale.

Oh, and the design was firmly rejected by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Yeah. There’s a U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Who knew? Seven white dudes, apparently.

Still. There is something slightly…ornamental around the eyes, isn’t there?


Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: August 23, 2011, 8:19 pm

He looks Chinese to me

Comment from Anonymous
Time: August 23, 2011, 8:26 pm

The foundation that funded the work had to pay King’s family nearly $800,000 for permission to use his words and likeness.

Would that make it more of a monument to greed and shameless exploitation?

Comment from Oldcat
Time: August 23, 2011, 8:33 pm

The carving “I have a dleam” is the real tipoff

Comment from AlexC
Time: August 23, 2011, 8:43 pm

I like the mountain concept and most of the design of the thing. One thing, I feel like the body language portrayed in his stance seems closed. I think a more open posture would be a better fit for Dr King. Between the stern look and the folded arms I just think it looks off, somehow. The proportions of his face seem somehow wrong too. I don’t know that I’d say Chinese, per se, just…off.

Comment from AlexC
Time: August 23, 2011, 8:48 pm

Taking a second look, it seems like the nasolabial lines are too shallow when compared to photos I’ve seen of him. Or his cheekbones should be forward a smidge

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: August 23, 2011, 8:52 pm

You know what I wanted SO BAD? I wanted a big monumental bronze in heroic classical style — half a dozen ordinary-looking middle class Americans in rumpled business clothes pushing a drinks cart looking like they mean BIDNESS — for the Flight 93 Memorial. Wouldn’t that have been spectacular?

Not that stupid crescent of trees bullshit.

I kind of like the sternness on the King memorial, though. It does have a kind of Mao statue vibe, I admit, but it conveys…I don’t know. Bigness.

Comment from Sven in Colorado
Time: August 23, 2011, 9:23 pm

Lesse how long before the *real* contemporary graffiti artists get a hold of it and tag the living shit outa those blank stone sides. They be a empty canvas just’a waitin’ fer some good ol’ Crips’n’Bloods territorial tagging.

The face does have an Oriental feel…not far east, but more middle eastern, out of the early Persian/Babylonian traditions, in my humble, artsy-fartsy edumacated opinion.

The man was a pioneer, no doubt. He was also a womanizer and heavy handed with his own chilluns. Like all of us, he had feet of clay…dust to dust and all that O.T. fire and brimstone stuff. He deserved a better death than being gunned down on the balcony of a non-descript, third rate motel.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: August 23, 2011, 9:56 pm

Yes, there’s something of a Thai Buddha about the face.

Comment from Christopher Taylor
Time: August 23, 2011, 9:57 pm

He does have slightly asian features, but his family says they did a good job. I like the “coming out of the rock” thing but it seems awfully stern for such a hopeful, dynamic man.

Comment from David Gillies
Time: August 23, 2011, 10:16 pm

Representational sculpture seems to be undergoing a bit of a resurgence.

I read a fascinating article a long time ago about the ructions surrounding the Vietnam War Memorial in DC. Now, I think the memorial as it is is a remarkably good bit of art for a public space, and Maya Lin should be highly praised for its starkness and solidity, but there were a lot of people who wanted a more representational artefact. As something of a compromise, there was commissioned The Three Soldiers memorial by Frederick Hart, one of the more interesting of 20th C. sculptors. Essentially an auto-didact, he made some of the most exquisite things that this race of clever monkeys has ever made. I’m really, really, REALLY not religious (really), but Ex Nihilo, for example, is something that speaks to me in a place very deep down. I almost get Stendhal Syndrome by Proxy when I see it on Google.

Comment from galensmark
Time: August 23, 2011, 10:23 pm

Discrace. Looks more like Martin Luther Cheng!

Comment from SCOTTtheBADGER
Time: August 23, 2011, 10:36 pm

Perhaps his eyes are slightly closed as he looks into the dawn of what he hopes will be a better day for all Americans. The Wednesday after the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November 2012, perhaps?

Comment from Pablo
Time: August 23, 2011, 10:43 pm

I’m sure Lei was going for determined, but he looks pissed off. Wary.

A good message for these times. I think it works.

Comment from PatAZ
Time: August 23, 2011, 11:43 pm

I agree the eyes are asian looking, as well as the nose. It’s definitely a stern look.

Comment from PatAZ
Time: August 23, 2011, 11:45 pm

Oh, and the money the family demanded was wrong. You’d think they would have been proud just to have his memorial in D.C.

Comment from Dan
Time: August 24, 2011, 12:26 am

Looks like he’s stuck in carbonite.

Comment from Sporadic Small Arms Fire
Time: August 24, 2011, 12:54 am

Looks like a bloated red communist louse.
Jeremiah wright, al sharpton, frank marshall davis and jesse jackson rolled in one. Sanctified into stratosphere by virtue of untimely perforation and proper pigmentation, because the content of character? I do not see any.

I very much regret the murder having occurred because it made a
martyr from a fraud, a plagiarist, racial division monger and profiteer.

Martin luther king dot org – do take the quiz, kids!

No need to ban me, i’ll see myself out. Thank you for blogging StoatyWeasel and bonne chance.

SSAF, out.

Comment from Nina from GCP
Time: August 24, 2011, 1:17 am

Oh, Oceania is waaaay worse than that, SSAF.

Comment from David Gillies
Time: August 24, 2011, 1:21 am

As for the criticism of the eyes etc.: it s a sculpture of MLK. Look at the photos. That’s what he looked like. To repeat: statue of MLK, not GBD (Generic Black Dude). That is what he looked like. Lei Yixin has nailed it. I think it’s a masterpiece.

And yes, MLK was a flawed character. Who isn’t? Even if he didn’t live up to his high-flown rhetoric all the time, I can find no fault with the idea that we should be judged on the content of our character rather than the colour of our skins. It’s what I try to do to people. Hope I succeed. If I don’t, my bad, not theirs.

Comment from Uncle Al
Time: August 24, 2011, 3:14 am

@S.Weasel — It does have a kind of Mao statue vibe, I admit…

Perhaps that’s because both MLK and Mao were communists?

Comment from Andrea Harris
Time: August 24, 2011, 4:41 am

Actually, a lot of Africans have a slightly “oriental” look to their features, especially around the eyes. As do a lot of Europeans. The “almond shaped” eye look may be most pronounced in East Asians, but it’s not uncommon in other regions of the Earth. Human beings aren’t really that different looking from each other.

PS: you’re the first person I’ve read on the internets who didn’t bitch because the statue was hewed out of white marble. Including some bloggers I respect. My response was, “Really?” I mean come on. Maybe we should go back to painting our statues like the ancient Greeks and Romans did?

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: August 24, 2011, 9:16 am

Wouldn’t even occur to me, Andrea. This weird literalism about colors is…weird. And I don’t think it is marble…I think it’s granite.

I’m an artard, SSAF. I’m perfectly happy reacting to the monument itself without even thinking about just desserts.

Comment from Mark Matis
Time: August 24, 2011, 11:42 am

At least he got the lips right…

Comment from Eating Media Lunch
Time: August 24, 2011, 11:56 am

He is a ‘Cheeky Darky’ with Fat Lips.


Comment from Oceania
Time: August 24, 2011, 12:14 pm

Americans have an unequal infatuation with Black men – why is that? Or is it just American homosexuals and women that have a cavity reflex??
Slaves? Oh no … cultural hick-up alert!!!! Political Control DeathCon Alert to Maximum!
Gotta have an illegal immigrant for President! Oh no – don’t check his non existent but faked birth certificate, track record, criminal past or IQ … his only criteria for selection is that he is Black. Well, half-Black … more Moccachina Mulatto to be exact …
Economic policy? What? You won’t notice till the second term when you country looks like Sierra Leone …

Comment from surly ermine
Time: August 24, 2011, 1:03 pm

I like it, concept and design.

Comment from JuliaM
Time: August 24, 2011, 4:49 pm

“It isn’t often that I like modern civic art. “

Me neither. But this one’s quite easy on the eye, for a change.

Comment from JuliaM
Time: August 24, 2011, 4:53 pm

Now can they get on and finish that statue of Crazy Horse carved into the mountain? The one I though was pure fiction when I first read about it in ‘Logan’s Run’?

Comment from Dave R
Time: August 24, 2011, 5:04 pm

A pox on all their houses. I don’t think it had to be black, but in fact it’s white not by artistic choice but because that’s what happened to be coming out of the Chinese slave labor quarries when they made it. And the artist they chose is strictly the most qualified in the world for it, but that’s because he’s had 30 some monumental statues of Chairman Mao to practice on. If I’m seeing more of an oriental cast to the features than others it’s only because it’s very plausible.

Still, a Chinese sculptor from mainland China still counts as a Minority in the eyes of American liberals, thus avoiding the worse firestorm if they’d picked a white American sculptor over an African-American. So, carry on.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: August 24, 2011, 5:30 pm

Yeah, but he was also one of the rich boys Mao sent to live on a farm during the Cultural Revolution, to get all the intellectual sweated out of him. I imagine he learned young to keep his mouth shut and make any statue he was told to.

Comment from Mitchell
Time: August 24, 2011, 6:56 pm

David Gillies,
Ah, another Frederick Hart fan! I used to work in a gallery that featured his acryllic sculptures and I loved to look at them. I was also in charge of cleaning them and got to inspect them very closely. We had one of the large 30 inch tall versions of the The Cross of the Millennium. It was an amazing piece. The price was somewhere in the $27,000 range IRRC. That was quite a few years ago though. It probably costs a bit more now.

Comment from Dan Patterson
Time: August 24, 2011, 7:00 pm

Since opinions are being solicited:
Very poor likeness, and a very odd stance for a public figure who rarely (ever?) was seen in such position. The overall impression is not positive, appealing, nor accurate.
Someone in the cotton-farming south should do a statue of Mao and make it look like a carnival barker.

Comment from Can’t hark my cry
Time: August 24, 2011, 8:41 pm

Well, there’s at least one photograph of him in that sort of crossed-arm stance (arms crossed the other way, though, I think) http://www.nzibo.com/images/martin.gif

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: August 24, 2011, 8:55 pm

That’s at least twice, then. The pose is taken from a different photo.

But, really, that’s like saying, “ZOMG — Abraham Lincoln never sat in a huge chair!” Or, you know, George Washington wasn’t a big ol’ obelisk.

That is now badly cracked, apparently.

Comment from MikeW
Time: August 24, 2011, 9:17 pm

An interesting sculpture, for sure. I’ll have to go check it out one of these days.

Upon seeing the pic above for the second day, this time I’m getting a slight suggestion of Alfred Hitchcock about the figure’s profile.
Nothing overt, just a haunting suggestion, so to speak. 😉

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