When it comes to the official monuments decorating city squares in China, Libya, Iraq, and the former Soviet Union, one thing that all these oversized statues of local dictators have in common is the laughably low quality of the art. The infamous bronze statue of Saddam Hussein, toppled in Baghdad after US troops seized the Iraqi capital, is a perfect example of this brand of official art: the inevitable stiffness of pose, obligatory right arm thrust upward toward a bright future, and total disregard for or lack of awareness of modern and contemporary art. Needless to say, all these monuments were produced by local artisans loyal to the political regime of the country.
We, living in the free world, want to believe that when it comes to decisions concerning our important public artworks, our choices are guided primarily by the quality of the art and not by the ideology, nationality, or ethnicity of the artist. Unfortunately, that's often not the case. Panned by critics, the World War II Memorial, erected on the Washington Mall a few years ago, is just such an example of good intentions gone awry. It's huge, it's stiff, and unintentionally echoes the spirit of Albert Speer, the favorite architect of Adolf Hitler. It's difficult to admit, but the democratic process of selecting art in open competition does not automatically guarantee high quality of the final artwork. You've probably heard the joke that a camel is actually a horse designed by committee.
There are some happy exceptions, when the best proposal gets the green light in spite of all the bureaucratic obstacles, as was the case with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by the exceptionally talented, barely out of school Maya Lin, an American artist of Chinese descent. Her ethnicity, her youth and the unsettling drama of the minimalistic nature of her design stirred up a lot of controversy, but somehow her vision prevailed and the monument was built. Now it's regarded as one of the best examples of American public artworks produced in recent decades.
On Monday, the Los Angeles Times reported on the front page the latest controversy surrounding the monument to Martin Luther King Jr. that is to be erected in Washington. The thirty-foot tall likeness of Rev. King will be carved from a single block of granite, and the fact that it's going to be done in Communist China -- by well respected Chinese artist Lei Yixin, using Chinese rather than American granite -- is enough to make a lot of people in the African-American community very unhappy. It's wrong, unpatriotic, they say, to outsource an American icon. CNN's Lou Dobbs joins the chorus, asking a member of the committee that selected the sculptor, "What in the world were you folks thinking?" It seems that no one wants to talk about the artistic merits of the portrait, instead arguing that only a black artist is uniquely qualified to honor a great leader of the African-American community.
Using this perverse logic, the great Laurence Olivier shouldn't have been allowed to play Othello, and the tiny, fierce Linda Hunt would never have been cast in the role of a male Cambodian reporter in The Year of Living Dangerously, which won her an Oscar. And the outstanding Chinese American architect, I.M. Pei shouldn't have been allowed to build his sparkling pyramids as the new entrance to the most famous of French museums, the Louvre. It's interesting to note that even such a traditionally conservative entity as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles had the smarts to commission a life-size bronze Crucifixion for their new cathedral from the most qualified LA artist, Simon Toporovsky, who happens to be Jewish. My concern about the monument to Rev. King is not who makes it, but whether the resulting artwork will be worthy of this great man.
Banner image: Lei Yixin and Christine Podas-Larson, President, Public Art Saint Paul, standing beside Lei's sculpture after installation