Thursday, August 25, 2011

Monumental Significance, Aesthetic Mediocrity? The MLK Jr National Memorial

Martin Luther King Memorial - Washington D.C.
Martin Luther King Jr. National Monument, Washington, DC. Image courtesy of Flickr user ehpien
I know many of you art teachers may be heading back to school, but in my office-y part of the land you can practically hear the tumbleweeds. Things are quiet, everyone’s enjoying the last of their vacation before the inevitable post-labor day rush back to normalcy. But in the public art world you’d never know things are so quiet—as the National Mall has seen (in addition to an earthquake) the unveiling of the first monument to an African American—the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Read on to find out more about the memorial and the place of monuments in the world of public art.

Aesthetics vs. Message
     A huge piece in the monument scene, and the world in general, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Monument will be dedicated on August 28, the 48th anniversary of the I Have a Dream speech. It’s an exciting time--and as many have pointed out, about darn time that one of the most influential, widely venerated leaders in American history gets his own memorial in our Nation's Capital. But while the unveiling of the monument is an event to celebrate without question, some feel that the sculpture itself leaves something to be desired. This duality of sentiment is nicely demonstrated in two New York Times pieces on the monument: “A Dream Fulfilled, Martin Luther King Memorial Opens” versus “A Reflection of Greatness, Blurred.”
     At the Daily Beast, Blake Gopnik has some pointed and well-poised questions about the monument itself—such as, why is a sculpture of a great African American leader essentially pinkish? Gopnik, and others, have also wondered why the commission went to Chinese artist Lei Yixin rather than an African American (or, at least, an American). Despite these queries, Gopnik admits that the message behind the work is cannot be overlooked even in the face of aesthetic criticisms. (I have to think that some folks in Indianapolis were looking for something more along the lines of this monument for the controversial Fred Wilson commission I wrote about a few weeks ago.)

Monuments and Public Art
     This duality in the coverage of the MLK work made me wonder--how is a monument to a public figure different than a work of public art along the lines of, say, this Claes Oldeburg paintbrush installed in Philadelphia this month? Gopnik, while pointing out that the MLK monument would never be placed in a museum, wonders whether monuments in general are even held to the same standards. I would posit that they are not. Though monuments are works of art, their charge, first and foremost, is to memorialize someone or something significant in a respectful fashion. The aesthetics are important, but I think it’s harder to argue for something challenging or outside the box with a memorial than for a more generalized work of public art. Indeed, the New York Times points out that the World War II and Roosevelt memorials have also been met with mixed aesthetic reviews. (Perhaps this is why Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is such an incredible feat—it holds up as a work of art and a memorial.)

What do you think about the new MLK Memorial? Is the message more important than aesthetics? Do you like the aesthetics? What might you have created for a memorial to this great man?

PS—Art Advocado is still looking for rural (or at least, non-urban) works of public art. If you know of any, please submit!

1 comment:

  1. As far as "non-urban" works of public art, artist, Marlin Miller created beautiful coastal wildlife sculptures from the many trees that were damaged along Biloxi, MS beach from hurricane Katrina.

    Read more about it here:


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