Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Falls Short as Art, Works as Tribute to the Man

The new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is weak as a work of art, but succeeds as a tribute to the civil-rights icon, says Blake Gopnik.

Martin Luther King Jr. was white.

That, at least, is the strong impression given by the monumental new sculpture of King being unveiled to the public today in Washington, followed Sunday by its grand presidential dedication. The builders of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial say that they were looking for stone with the right Washington vibe, but they ended up choosing granite with a striking resemblance to pale, freckled skin.

That is just one of several faults that make the new memorial a pretty strange and weak work of art. But with so many people excited at the arrival of a monument that, for the first time on our National Mall, honors a person of color, an activist, and a peacenik, I have to wonder whether its artistic success will end up having anything much to do with the success of its commemoration—or even whether art and monuments ever have that close a connection.

But first, a word or two more on those faults. To find their blush-colored stone, the memorial's architects had to head all the way to China, where they also found the artist Lei Yixin, declared a master sculptor by the aesthetes of that Communist state, and charged him with carving a likeness of the great African-American leader. (In a curious reversal of the “whitewashing” of black skin seen in photos from Dr. King¹s time, the official photos of his new memorial mostly show his statue’s face in shadow, making him look a touch less Caucasian.)

On top of being too pink, the sculpture Lei carved is also too small: At 29 feet tall, it is dwarfed by most decent-size trees. From likely viewpoints around the Tidal Basin that laps up against the MLK site from the great Jefferson and FDR memorials, for instance. King looks postage-stampish. The builders of the best other memorials have realized that, to really achieve an impressive scale, you have to house your statue in an imposing building (the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials), or give it an expansive footprint (FDR’s). With the Washington Monument looming nearby to tell visitors what big really is, no carved figure could be big enough to count.

Even from its own four-acre site stony, hot, and forbidding, but maybe more welcoming once its fountains are turned on, the King sculpture isn’t so much monumental as overbearing and ponderous. Its Communist roots show clearly; it shouts its importance at you, like a party leader with a bullhorn. (The capital’s Commission of Fine Arts complained about this in 2008, hammering the statue's “Social Realist style,” but its views had little effect.)

The memorial’s dominant conceit is that the statue is a “Stone of Hope” that has pulled free from a “Mountain of Despair” carved as its backstop. That conceit takes a fine and flexible image from King’s rhetoric and freezes it into the kind of ham-fisted visual allegory that only the worst memorials sink to using. (And it so happens that the craggy rock faces that Master Lei carved into his “Mountain” bear a strange resemblance to cliffs from classic Chinese paintings. The Park Service worries that it's “going to have some fun” chasing off rock climbers, said Mieko Preston, the project architect who gave me a tour.)

If you didn't know that Dr. King was one of the greatest figures in American history, the raw artistic merit of his memorial would never tell you he was. It is impossible to imagine this memorial finding a place in future histories of art, or in any self-respecting museum. But, as I suggested already, maybe that hardly matters. Who ever said a fine memorial should also be fine art? Even the great Lincoln Memorial was terribly out of it, in purely artistic terms, when it was dedicated in 1922. By then, even cubism was already old hat.

Few other great monuments do much better, as art; if they didn't already exist, no art historian would invent them. That could be because, in a memorial, artistic excellence would be more of a distraction than not. According to Preston, the project architect, Washington’s memorials are focused on who is being honored: “It’s a recognition of their position in American history, on the National Mall. I think we put them up because we want to remember what we’ve had to overcome, and remind ourselves of where we still have to go; it’s about memory.”

And the best sign of our remembering may simply be the money that we spend on something huge and splashy. The King memorial is costing $120 million in mostly private funds, and is unmistakably grand and monument-y, which means that it does nearly everything it needs to. Rather than look for a challenging new language to voice its message in, it uses the kind of visual clichés that speak to us most quickly and efficiently. A big size, fancy stone, laborious carving, high realism, incised texts in a classical script they do the memorial's commemorative work better, for a wider slice of the public, than ambitious art ever could.

Add to that a face and pose that people already know from photos, and you've got a monument that spells out our love and respect if not artfully, then at least with stolid efficiency.

Even making King look white can't make us remember him less.