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MLK memorial: A statue fit for a King?

Critics say the memorial smacks of totalitarian art.

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But the latest memorial to open on the mall, honoring the World War II generation, received some of the same criticism that has been made of the King figure. The Los Angeles Times art critic, Christopher Knight, called the National World War II Memorial "overbearing in style and garish in design."

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Would the $100 million King memorial be a second instance of bombast on the mall? Or are critics simply reading into the art what they least want to see? In the case of the King monument, critics hint at a more insidious idea: that its Chinese sculptor is somehow intentionally fashioning King as he would Mao Zedong. From the time Lei was selected to design the memorial, critics have complained that the artist should have been African-American, American – or at the very least not a Chinese artist who has sculpted Mao in the past.

The Commission of Fine Arts calls the proposed King figure Social Realist, but the worry seems to be about what is known as socialist realism. The latter is a label generally applied to Soviet-era art intended to honor and uplift the working class and the ideals of socialism, but evocative of oppression and intimidation to many Americans.

The commission cited in particular the King statue's "stiffly frontal image, static in pose." Others cite the folded arms (though they're modeled after a famous Bob Fitch photograph of King), the boxy suit, the steely stare.

Ed Jackson Jr., the memorial foundation's executive architect, affirmed that Lei would consider altering the texture of the sculpture to create a sense of King emerging from the stone, in response to the commission's request that it evoke Rodin or Michelangelo.

But Jackson, who argues that King appears thoughtful and strong in the sculpture, doesn't see the resemblance to totalitarian art.

"I don't believe the whole commission embraced that statement. I didn't take that to heart," he said in reference to the statue-toppling comment. "To view King in the same light as you would Saddam Hussein is a gross misrepresentation. I don't think the two individuals should even be placed in the same area of consideration."

Indeed, the Hussein statue that was toppled in Baghdad after the US-led invasion is quite unlike the King model. Saddam's figure had at least some sense of movement. It also had a calm if firm expression, an open, raised palm and a fairly slim, rather than boxy, suit.

Swati Pandey is an assistant articles editor for the Los Angeles Times opinion pages. ©2008 Los Angeles Times.