Decades after it was first proposed, 12 years after fundraising started, and only months before construction is set to begin, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial is mired in controversy – with some artists and art historians saying that Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin's rendering of the civil rights leader resembles the type of art more commonly used to commemorate totalitarian dictators.
On those grounds, the little-known US Commission of Fine Arts, whose approval is required before the project can proceed, proposed last month that the sculpture be reworked.
"In general, the commission members found that the colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed statue recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries," commission secretary Thomas Luebke wrote in a letter, which was part of a routine review of the proposed memorial, still set to open in 2010.
It's unclear why the commission chose to voice its concerns now, since it approves the project as a whole, and has looked at earlier versions and models of the statue.
What is clear is that the commission's apparent reference to the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad in 2003 highlights once again the unease with which Americans have approached the idea of monuments. Over the years, art critics have noted the difficulty a democracy such as the United States faces when it tries to commemorate wars and heroes without recalling the hulking art of a dictatorship.
The country's very first monument on the mall was the subject of long debate about whether to include a statue of George Washington gloriously riding a chariot, surrounded by warriors. In the end, that approach was rejected in favor of a lone obelisk.
The later Lincoln and Jefferson memorials did feature likenesses of the presidents themselves, but portrayed them inside buildings, seated and contemplative or quietly forceful.
The now widely praised Vietnam Veterans Memorial was initially criticized for being antiheroic, too dark and sunken. Luebke, the commission secretary, noted that it was a particularly difficult case as "the first of these national memorials to armed conflict on the National Mall."
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."
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.