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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.