Of Memorials and Memory: Martin Luther King Memorial


The Martin Luther King Memorial

Washington, D. C.

Artists make our memories for us.  We tend not to think about this prodigious feat of collective historical construction but when we ask ourselves what is the first image that comes to mind about, say, Iwo Jima? We answer “The Iwo Jima Memorial.”  Not the wounding photographs published sixty years ago in Life Magazine but the huge cast bronze group of men, thirty-two feet tall, raising the American flag on Mount Surabachi.  The sculptor, Felix de Welton, is less well-known than the photographer Joe Rosenthal who staged the famous photograph upon which the Marine Corps War Memorial (1954) was based.

But, in recent times, we have been faced with challenges that have gone far beyond the traditional monuments or memorials.  The problem of the last forty years has been how to represent tragedy and to wring something redeeming from it.

Two recent memorials, dedicated within weeks of each other, demonstrate eloquently a lack of eloquence that conveys the delicate question that the artist must answer visually—how to touch the hearts and minds?  How to create a meaningful history? How to heal wounds?  On one hand we have what I consider a complete and colossal failure, painful to look at, and ill-conceived at its very heart, The Martin Luther King Memorial.  On the other hand, we have the National September 11 Memorial in the footprint of the World Trade Center in New York. This memorial was designed by architect Michael Arad, and this very different structure is far more successful, suited to the site and understated in its impact.

The Martin Luther King Memorial rears up out of the green tuft of the Mall, yet another blemish on what is becoming an overcrowded field cluttered with really bad works of public “art.”  The huge white sculpture of the Civil Rights leader emerges like a bad Michelangelo work (evoking an unfortunate memory of the Renaissance artist’s series of Slaves for the Tomb of Julius II).  King’s arms are crossed and he has a pouting unpleasant expression on his face.

The sculpture was based on a photograph by Bob Fitch in 1966.  This particular image was a strange choice, a passive pose for an active man. Fitch was summoned to King’s office when the preacher was enjoying a rare pause between appointments and had time to pose for some photographs.  He and his wife spent a great deal of time in Atlanta with the Kings, with his wife acting as Coretta King’s secretary.  It is clear that King was comfortable with Fitch, for his posture is relaxed and peaceful.  His folded arms are a gesture of relaxation and familiarity with an old friend.  No one asked Fitch’s permission to use (misuse) his original image, reverse it, and turn it into a cold totalitarian figure looming over the Mall.

The pose of Martin Luther King was transformed into something forbidding and off putting—a stand-offish stance that repels rather than attracts.  The folded arms ward off any approach—an impossible posture for a leader who gathered followers.  It is strange that the first African-American honored on the Mall, should be so glaringly white.  Chosen by the memorial committee from an international competition, the Chinese artist Lei Yixin was given King a very Asian look, as if King were Chinese or Mao was African-American.  Yixin stated,

“Dr. King’s vision is still living, in our minds; we still miss him, we still need him,” said Yixin through a translator, calling the sculpture the most important of his life, technically and emotionally. “I am trying to present Dr. King as ready to step out … this is King’s spirit, to judge people from their character, not race, color or background.”

Nice words but one can’t help wondering what David Hammons would have done with such an opportunity.

There is a clumsy literalness about the idea of King on the part of the uninspired artist that captures nothing of the history of King the minister, King the leader, King the martyr.  Adding to the illustrative quality to the experience is the very silly chunks, supposedly made from a white granite “mountain,” broken in two parts named, and one shudders at these names, the “Mountain of Despair” and the “Stone of Hope.”

King’s speech from which the phrase was taken is far more eloquent: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” from his “I Have a Dream” speech.  The preacher holds a copy of the speech in one of his hands, the speech read on that very Mall August 28, 1963. And if that is not enough there are fourteen other quotations from his speeches. According to other news source, the great poet, Maya Angelou objected the shortening of some of the fourteen quotes.  I must agree that it is nothing short of vandalism to tamper with someone’s writing, especially a speaker as powerful as Martin Luther King.

The quotation that Angelou disliked the most was originally, “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.

But the short version states simplistically, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” Which immediately conjures up an image of King in a band uniform tossing a baton into the sky.  One wonders why this and other statements were shortened—budget costs?

The failure of this work is so great, in my opinion, that it makes the World War II Memorial—an artistic abjection that I have long thought to be a huge fascist monstrosity—look positively noble.  The problem is not that the artist is not American but that the artist is not imaginative or inspired.  In other words Mr. Yixin had a photograph but no concept.  Can you make art when you know nothing about your subject?  Can you create a successful memorial out of a concept?

For an answer, look no further than Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center of 1988.  She was in her twenties, she had never learned of the Civil Rights Movement, but Lin read one of King’s speeches with a quote taken from the Bible.  King paraphrased Amos 5:24 and said, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

As Lin said later, “The minute I hit that quote I knew that the whole piece had to be about water,” Lin said. “I realized that I wanted to create a time line: a chronological listing of the Movement’s major events and its individual deaths, which together would show how people’s lives influenced history and how their deaths made things better.”

The architect made a powerful black circle engraved with the forty names of all those who had died in the cause of voting rights, including Martin Luther King in 1968.  Water streams over the surface of the smooth etched surface, healing the wounded hearts of those still waiting for justice.  In other words Maya Lin had a concept.

What kind of memorial would have been fitting for Martin Luther King?  King was a small man who led a big movement, a long march that continues today, and he agreed to join the Civil Rights Protests, knowing that once he did, he was dead man.  We forget today that for a black child going to school with white boys and girls in the 1950s was impossible—textbooks touched by a black child could not be touched by a white child: books were kept separate and unequal.  We forget today that for a black man to try to vote in the South in the 1960s was to invite the inevitable lynching.

Martin Luther King made integrated schools possible, made it safe for African-Americans to vote, made it possible for Barack Obama to become President. King gave his life, as did many others, so that American citizens could have American rights.  There was something knowing and innocent about King’s face: his eyes were set wide apart and his light brows made him look open and welcoming.  He was a man with a face that seemed to know what was coming.

King’s role model was Ghandi and we see the photograph of the Indian leader in the photograph by Bob Fitch.  Twenty years after Ghandi’s assassination, Martin Luther King, apostle of non-violent protest, was murdered.  I believe his memorials are everywhere and appeared spontaneously.

The Footprints he left Behind

The films of his Marches

The films of his Speeches

“I Have a Dream” and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

The famous photograph of his assassination

Joel Sternfeld’s photograph of the Lorraine Motel

The Testimony of his Followers

The Memories of his Family

What all of us have Learned from this Man

The Martin Luther King Gravesite, Atlanta

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

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