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NYT Critic: The MLK Memorial Is a “Failure”

The Sunday scene. (Lydia DePillis)

Despite the cancellation of a formal event to dedicate the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, hundreds if not thousands of people packed the grounds yesterday for their first look at the Mall's newest landmark. According to the New York Times' at-large cultural critic Edward Rothstein, they should have been sorely disappointed. He wrote last week:

We don’t even see his feet. He is embedded in the rock like something not yet fully born, suited and stern, rising from its roughly chiseled surface. His face is uncompromising, determined, his eyes fixed in the distance, not far from where Jefferson stands across the water. But kitsch here strains at the limits of resemblance: Is this the Dr. King of the “I Have a Dream” speech? Or the writer of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech?

Rothstein concludes, philosophically, that most memorials misinterpret their subjects in one way or another. It's certainly true that complaints about misinterpretation are almost inevitable; the Vietnam Veterans Memorial got some of the worst of them, and Frank Gehry's design for the Eisenhower Memorial has already been roundly panned as well.

Echoing a line of complaint that started as soon as the design was unveiled, Rothstein would have liked to see a memorial that encapsulated more of King's contemplative, inspirational side, calling the pose "authoritarian," more like a "warrior or a ruler" than a minister. (The slightly stylized sculpture does bear a faint resemblance to imperial China's terra cotta soldiers, I'll agree that the bifurcated boulder setup feels a little Disneyfied, and the misquote on its side was certainly sloppy.)

The monument's creators brush off that kind of criticism. At a private event Friday evening honoring the African American contractors who built the memorial, construction executive Henry Gilford expressed impatience with the critics who complained that the likeness of King was "too stern." "Would it be any different if he had his middle finger sticking up?" Gilford joked.

The point Gilford was making, I think, is that the civil rights struggle was hard. King's statue looks across the tidal basin towards the memorial to a man who owned slaves. Why shouldn't he be stern? African Americans didn't win equality through uplifting speeches alone, after all. Rothstein complains about the figure being half-hewn from the rock behind it, "like something not yet fully born." I read that more as an evocation of the fact that King was backed by a movement, not simply an iconic figure in himself. Besides, there's ample room for contemplation of the man's words in themselves, with quotes etched boldly into the surrounding walls.

Criticism of memorials is fair and inevitable—but sometimes, it's just rooted in differences of opinion over what ought to be memorialized. On that front, it's hard to say that anybody's more right than anybody else.

Comments

  1. #1

    Failure? I think a memorial is a success simply by existing.

  2. #2

    Lydia,

    The granite monument of Martin Luther King was created by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, not an African American contractor.

  3. #3

    I agree with Rothstein completely. The authoritarian Dr. King looks like he's ordering us all to bed without dessert rather than taking a more open, conciliatory pose that might've served him more memorably. What a stare! "Jefferson, you very bad man!"

    I guess it all doesn't matter. Corporations chipped in big to make sure they don't get branded racist (look! Tommy Hilfiger! What better way to defuse age old (false!) rumors his company hates black people!) and the family got paid (!) to "license his image" (Bwahahaha!).

    Finally, the memorial is white. WHITE. How rich. It'll blend in with the pigeon sh*t. I guess white stone is what the Chinese prison labor folks dug up that month, so that's the stone we'll use.

    Here's the best line, from wikipedia: "In September 2010, the foundation gave written promises that it would use local stonemasons to assemble the memorial. However, when construction began in October, it appeared that only Chinese laborers would be used. The Washington area local of the Bricklayers and Allied Craftsworkers union investigated and determined that the workers were not being paid on a regular basis, with all of their pay being withheld until they return to China."

    So, we used cheap immigrant labor and foreign parts to do another job Americans just won't do. Truly symbolic, alright.

  4. #4

    I agree with Cristw, just to have the memorial at that location is a sucess, like a lot of black folks, no matter what is accomplish, they will find fault yet they are absent when the planning and work is needed to acomplish something. The old adage like crabs in a barrel.

  5. #5

    Perhaps if an american had designed the statue it might have actually looked like my hero MLK. Love a memorial, hate it was made in China. He is an American hero why was an American not the creator. outsourced again!
    Gee Ward, if crabs in a barrel means we like our memorials to look like the person they represent then so be it! What the hell does" LIKE A LOT OF BLACK FOLKS, no matter what is accomplished they find fault" mean? What a stu[id comment. i for one am green and find much fault with the damn statue and judgement like yours. We were not included in the planning because no one gives a damn what the people want, Like so many white folks, they just speak off the cuff about things they know nothing about.

  6. #6

    There is a difference between designed and constructed and ultimately what difference does it make ?

    I think that decades from now the actual design of the memorial will be far less significant than the pure symbolism that it exists period.

    Very good analysis Lydia.

  7. #7

    Happy that there is a memorial, but regret that the style is Soviet Stalinist Realism. One sees a lot of these heroic statue figures emerging from rock in the former USSR. The Chinese sculptor might have trained in that artistic style as well.

  8. #8

    I have not seen this in person yet and can only judge from the pic, but the pose doesn't seem that authoritarian to me. He doesn't have a full-on arms crossed pose. If his hands were tucked under his armpits it would look more stern. This seems a bit more relxed to me in an civilly-disobedient "I dont care that you are yelling at me" way. Then he is backed up by stone to further indicate he won't give in

  9. #9

    ChrisW is right

  10. #10

    Martin Luther is not only a black hero, he is the hero of all races, he is a hero of humanity.
    Having his feet still embedded in the rock, might reveal the fact that the struggle is not yet finished.
    We only have to look at the abhorrent immigration law of Alabama.

  11. #11

    MLK looks like a strong proud African-American and among other American figures who worked hard and stuck their necks out to make our Nation better. There will always be unhappy people who piss on everything around them; the world will always be a living hell for them. For the rest of us, this Memorial is just another thing to be happy about.

    The Memorial does need a lot of bike racks nearby since that will be one of the best ways for many people to access and enjoy it.

  12. #12

    MLK looks like a strong proud African-American and among other American figures who worked hard and stuck their necks out to make our Nation better. There will always be unhappy people who piss on everything around them; the world will always be a living hell for them. For the rest of us, this Memorial is just another thing to be happy about.

    The myopic racists out there seem to forget that MLK viewed everyone in the world as one family. I'm happy for our Asian brother who helped us celebrate MLKs legacy thus emphasizing that MLK's work was inspirational all around the planet.

    The Memorial does need a lot of bike racks nearby since that will be one of the best ways for many people to access and enjoy it.

  13. #13

    I assumed MLK looked angry because his children turned out to be such greedy little twerps, and the final straw was when they demanded $800,000 for the right to use his image for this national memorial.

    That, plus his one daughter is virulently anti-gay, ignoring the pro-gay actions both of her parents set as an example.

  14. #14

    MLK never once in his life supported gay rights. Honestly, do folks on here know anything about history? Mrs. King became a gay activist later in life and in doing so ticked off a lot of people who supported Dr. King. MLK, like his father before him, was a Pastor and thus did not support gay rights.

  15. #15

    I agree with those who say the very existence of the memorial is part of what we should celebrate. It's also true the King Children have become money grubbers. I mean, making people (children) pay to hear a recording of the I HAVE A DREAM SPEECH is nothing short of criminal. As for the disgusting remark that Dr. King should look stern because he is looking at Jefferson the slave-holder. Absurd. Dr. King himself observed that freedom evolves. Had it not been for slavery, of course, men like Dr. king would never have been in the United States to begin with.

  16. #16

    @StrangeFruit

    It took more than just a sculptor to build the whole thing.
    http://www.mlkmemorial.org/site/c.hkIUL9MVJxE/b.2792781/k.A0CF/Design_Build_Team.htm

  17. #17

    WHY WOULD ANYONE CARE WHAT THE FUCK EDWARD ROTHSTEIN THINKS ABOUT THE M.L.K. MEMORIAL? DID HE DONATE AN EXTRAORDINARY AMOUNT OF MONEY TO GRANT HIM THE RIGHT TO BE THE CRITIC IN CHIEF? THE JEFFERSON AND LINCOLN SPOTS WERE CRITIZED HEAVILY BACK IN THEIR DAY. UNLESS YOU WALKED A MILE IN SOMEONE ELSE’S SHOES HOW CAN YOU BE CRITICAL OF THE STEPS THEY TAKE?

    THIS CLOWN STATED “the Holocaust should be treated as uniquely Jewish, and institutions dilute their message when they present other genocides as comparable.” SO THE GENOCIDE IN RWANDA IS NOT PARALLEL WITH THE HOLOCAST IN GERMANY WHEN IN FACT THEY ARE ONE IN THE SAME. ETHNIC CLEANSING IS ETHNIC CLEANSING NO MATTER WHAT PART OF THE WORLD. SO ONE CAN GATHER FROM THIS STATEMENT ALONE HIS ONE-SIDED ROOTED POINT OF VIEW.

    I VISITED MEMORIAL THE 1ST DAY IT OPENED AND WAS IN TOTAL AWE AS WAS EVERYONE ELSE WHO WAS THERE. THE M.L.K. MEMORIAL IS THOUGHT PROVOKING AND PROVIDES LEARNING EXPERIENCES FOR THOSE THAT WEREN’T TAUGHT BLACK HISTORY IN SCHOOLS AND THEIR HOMES AND IT POSES AS A REMINDER OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. IT REPRESENTS THE AMERICA HE ENVISIONED AND THAT IS BLACK FOLK UNITING FOR A POSITVE CAUSE, A CHINESE ARTIST HANDLING HIS BUSINESS AND FOLK OF ALL BACKGROUNDS GATHERING CELEBRATING A LIFE THAT PROMOTED POSITIVE CHANGE.

    THE LOCATION IS ALSO PROPER BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO MARCH YOUR ASS OVER THERE WHICH IS WHAT HE DID A LOT OF FOR US TO HAVE A BETTER LIFE. WALKING TO MEMORIAL GIVES YOU TIME TO IMAGINE BEFORE GOING IN AND TO REFLECT UPON LEAVING. BOOKSTORE IS ICING! AGREE WITH CCCA Prez AN OVER ABUNDANCE OF BIKE RACKS ARE NEEDED.

    A NON-PRESIDENT, ANTI-WAR, BLACKMAN FROM THE SOUTH IS FOREVER ETCHED IN STONE LOCATED ON PRIME MEMORIAL REAL ESTATE ON FEDERAL PROPERTY TO BE DEDICATED BY THE FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT WHO BY THE WAY IS PUTTING THIS COUNTRY BACK ON TRACK. IT SOUNDS LIKE MR. ROTHSTEIN IS HATIN’ ‘CAUSE HE IS JEALOUS!

  18. #18

    @Hillman, I'm well aware that you dislike most things "black." However, you do realize that every family of a famous person, (esp like King) maintains the rights to their relatives image and sell it accordingly. You think Reagan's family allows the use of his image for FREE?

    Dude, you're not a "special" black man so please attempting to make it so.

    The king family is doing what all families do and I challenge you to find any contrary evidence.

  19. #19

    Sounds like a lot of people are confusing a critique of the ultimate design of the monument with having a monument to MLK at all. It's undoubtedly a great triumph that there is a monument to MLK on the National Mall. It's just unfortunate that this is design that was chosen. Also, I think people are selling MLK short to suggest that just having any monument to MLK is great no matter how poor the final design actually is. We should expect, at a minimum, that a monument to a great person should be great.

  20. #20

    @Noodlez: Don't forget the non-violence ethos of Dr. King. That aspect of his accomplishments make them all the more remarkable.

  21. #21

    @Typical-THANKS FOR THE HEADS UP BUT I DIDNT FORGET.

    I JUST DIDNT WANT THOSE BAMMAS TO GET AT ME REGARDING MY MALCOLM X TINGED COMMENT REGARDING MR. ROTHSTEIN.

    @boomerang- "Also, I think people are selling MLK short to suggest that just having any monument to MLK is great no matter how poor the final design actually is" ACCORDING TO WHO??

  22. #22

    @ Lydia DePillis,

    Oh really Lydia, it took more than a Chinese sculptor to build the MLK memorial???? Dah!

    Based on the theme of the NY Times' article--the sculpture is a "misinterpretation of MLK"-- and your acknowledgment that it, "bear a faint resemblance to imperial China's ,terra cotta soldiers" one would logically conclude you would mention the Chinese sculptor's name, and not the "African American contractor".

    You disingenuously omitted the Chinese sculptor's name, Lei Yixin, to vilify the African American contractor who neither designed nor created the sculpture.

    I shouldn't be surprised; this is your typical style of writing-- omission and fabrication.

  23. #23

    “It was awe aspiring; I am not the type that is left speechless often, but you walk in there and see the monument based on his speech, ‘Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope should be carved,” Hamid said. “To see King standng almost at the water, facing the Lincoln Memorial where he gave that speech – it was one of those times where you just have to take it all in and just look around.” --- Ole Miss kids

    Look at this and understand the purpose.

  24. #24

    @ Strange Fruit,

    This post doesn't vilify any contractors, it mentions them because an event honoring them is where Lydia got the quote from Henry Gilford.

  25. #25

    Since the memorial is white when it is depicting a black man, an appropriate commemorative song would be "Billie Jean".

  26. #26

    MLK is the most overly glorified figure in US history. We have MLK boulevards and schools in every city in america. Besides Jesus, MLK is the only person to have a national holiday .. a minister who was an unabashed adulterer. It is pure black bigotry ... where are the testiments to the white civil rights martyrs? Whites who died fighting for the rights of blacks .. not themselves, or their families or their race ... but for blacks? They are not even mentioned or acknowledged by the civil rights leaders.

  27. #27

    @ K W Smith --

    Not going to bother arguing with the rest of your inane post, but George Washington and Abraham Lincoln also have a national holiday; it falls about a month after the day commemorating King.

  28. #28

    Do we not have any African American sculptors in this country? What about Ed Dwight, who has produced many public memorials to Black history? How in God's name did we end up with a Chinese sculptor? There must have been some strange doings in the committee that made these decisions.

  29. #29

    Mike,
    You should bother with his post. Having a day off for the entire country IS a big deal. MLK wasn't a president and didn't win a war, two of the larger standards I would say that qualify for that honor. Both of KW Smith's points about MLK are true - I noticed you didn't argue with the fact he not only was an adulterer, but he consorted with Communists and was a known plagiarizer. So, it may be an "inane" post you don't want to deal with, but it also has the fact of being 100% true. This is a memorial to white guilt and little else. The facts I mentioned in #3 post make it a monument to our times.

  30. #30

    @ Chris & K.W. Smith,

    Are you boys J.Edgar Hoover's illegitimate off-springs that were conceived out of curiosity? It's a new world and daddy's propaganda BS doesn't hold water in today's society; so get with the program, open the closet door and strut those 6 inch heels like big daddy Hoover showed y'all.

  31. #31

    I am so grateful that its finally here and it represent all people. But especially black folk.still many of us blacks don't understand its purpose.just living today ignorant of its meaning.still no real love for one another. Many of us think his and his wife sacrifices were for night. Clubs and not working but it was for a better life. And I'm a product and so thankful.still aways to go. But we just don't have those kind of leaders today.I think we have all been brought out.today America is even more prejudice. I feel it everywhere. And is it due to a black president and the new home of the king statute.

  32. #32

    Get over yourself America!!!!!! The monument of MLK is very nice and thank you. He would have been proud.

  33. #33

    Why not put him on a stamp cause post office is a failure too!!!!
    Enough is enough. He has had his time to shine.

  34. #34

    Why does he need a memorial. There was nothing special about him at all. He doesn't even need the holiday each year. Just because he gav e some stupid I have a dream speech?? Gimme a break they should tear this down and build something useful

  35. #35

    MLK being honored with this memorial is more than a success. I agree with whoever made the comment about "black folks"...I am a (proud)black woman, but I hate to admit that its true. Alot of black people seem to complaining about the memorial whether it has to do with the fact that a chinese guy sculpted it, or that it doesnt resemble Dr. King, or that he looks "confrontational". The committee didnt choose Ed Dwight because apparently his work just didnt cut it this time. King's own son (his namesake at that) said that Yixin was very talented and that out of the 50 scultures of his dad, this one looks the most like him. I just want to say QUIT COMPLAINING, and realize that this is what King would have wanted. His whole "I have a Dream Speech" dealt with leaving behind the boundaries of "color" and "creed". With your negative comments you've taken a step back into the past, and quite frankly you're making african americans as a people look very very ungrateful.

    To whoever said his stance is confrontational...umm hello...with all of the nonsence that was going on back in those days do you think he was an easy going, laid back type??? Think about it, confrontation means he confronted the situation head on..thats what it took to get his point across and look how far we have come.

    THINK ABOUT IT!!!!

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