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Jewish World Review
August 29, 2011
/ 29 Menachem-Av, 5771
Socialist Realism on the Mall
Martin Luther King Jr., now has his Washington memorial just where it should be: on the National Mall.
But that's about all that's good about it. Because everything else about it raises misgivings. The deepest misgivings.
To judge by the photographs, any resemblance between this monolith and Martin Luther King is purely coincidental. It fails even to hint, let alone capture, the essence of the man -- his Southern, his American, his Christian core.
The arms of the figure are folded, its pose unnatural, its features severe, with its closed lips, its eyes deadened. Most unconvincing of all are those arms folded across the chest, instead of outstretched as if to save. Everything about the great image seems strained, nothing about it natural. It is not at all like the black Southern Baptist preacher we remember -- imploring, loving, prophetic, calling for the justice, justice that thou shalt pursue.
What a contrast with Daniel Chester French's enduring Lincoln in that president's Memorial -- so sorrowful, so feeling, so compassionate, so sad-eyed, so wise. Made wise by suffering. For unearned suffering, said Martin Luther King Jr., is redemptive.
You can see the truth of that assertion, that belief, that truth in the furrowed features of French's Lincoln, who never so looked the part of Father Abraham. It would not surprise if those stone eyes were to weep for his country, dismembered before those eyes, reunited in a terrible war and a new birth of freedom.
Sorrowful as that Lincoln is, it elevates. Like true tragedy. But the new King Memorial depresses. As a failure to understand always does. This monument does not have the feel of tragedy but of travesty. It does neither Martin Luther King Jr. nor the history he made justice. It fails to capture the man who carved a stone of hope out of the mountain of despair. There is nothing here of the living man whose words illuminated the American Dream for his generation and, God willing, many more.
Maybe what makes this stone-faced figure so wrong, so monumentally wrong, are those folded arms. As if this prophet were resisting change rather than urging it. This pharaonic image (30 feet high) looks down at the multitudes rather than speaking to us one-to-one as Dr. King did, "black and white together," in the words of the old civil-rights anthem.
This towering figure emerges from the stone silent, its jaws clenched, its mouth sealed rather than full of praise for the Lord. The people walking by are dwarfed, not raised. It is hard to imagine Dr. King's unceasing biblical allusions issuing forth from this great graven image --
We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
And when this happens, . . . we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last!
But the quotations chosen for the memorial seem one big mass and mess of what Dr. King called "pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities" in his immortal Letter From a Birmingham Jail.
Most of the phrases around the statue seem to have been chosen solely on the basis of their universal triteness. Who in the world picked these platitudes out of the treasure that is Martin Luther King's rich legacy of words? Some tone-deaf editor who leaves every vapid generality in a speech while crossing out any sign of real insight or daring truth?
Did Joe Biden have anything to do with this? Anybody who made some of the comments he did on his recent visit to mainland China, which amounted to one long kowtow to its Communist masters, would be perfectly capable of misunderstanding Dr, King and his times, too. The vice-president of the United States of America expressed the greatest sympathy for Communist China's rulers, their coercive one-child policy and anti-life decrees in general, little for its people, and even less for its courageous political dissenters and bravely practicing Christians. He dared not even call them by name. He had come not to challenge injustice but to praise it.
In the end, what is to be said of this monumental mistake on the National Mall, standing there in the company of Lincoln and Jefferson? It is in its way perfectly indicative of today's popular culture -- grandiose without being eloquent. It is the very opposite of the elegant, of the simple, of the true greatness of Martin Luther King Jr. and his dream. The killers of the dream have done their work again.
This much the new memorial on the mall makes clear: It takes more than a chisel to make a great piece of sculpture; it takes understanding. It comes as no surprise to learn that the sculptor who did this thing is a veteran of the Maoist school of memorabilia in Communist China, having been commissioned to produce some 150 public monuments in the People's Republic (which is neither), including more than a few to Chairman Mao himself.
Who is this Svengali who can take a living, breathing dreamer and all his dreams, and reduce them to unfeeling stone?
Socialist Realism, thy name is Lei Yixin. And what you clearly don't understand about Martin Luther King Jr., or about America and the American Dream for that matter, is a lot.
Paul Greenberg Archives
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