Why the King memorial commission was given to a Chinese

Dean Ericson writes:

It’s interesting that the centerpiece of an American national monument was outsourced to the Chinese. Were there no Americans who could do the job? Certainly there are capable American figurative sculptors working today, though not as many as in the heyday of American figurative sculpture, 1880-1930, when you had the likes of Augustus St. Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, Gutzon Borglum, Paul Manship, and Malvina Hoffman. Back then, figurative sculpture was an important public art. Today, figurative sculpture has been eclipsed in the public mind by other art forms. Nevertheless, there’s talent out there: Glenna Goodacre, Richard McDonald, David Allen Clark, Victor Issa, Paul Moore, Lincoln Fox and others I can’t think of just now. Heck, just go to Loveland, Colorado, famous for its sculpture and sculptors, and throw a stone and you’ll probably hit someone capable of turning out better work than the Thing that Lei Yixin has given us.

One reason that has been suggested as to why they didn’t choose an American sculptor is that China could make the monument for one fourth the cost. But is it believable that they had trouble coming up with an extra million (or whatever) to do it in the USA? Not likely. More to the point, wouldn’t this have been a great opportunity to have a black American sculptor create the King memorial? They must have thought of that, but couldn’t find a black sculptor capable of doing this job. If there was a qualified black American sculptor they would surely have leaped on him and trumpeted the fact to the skies. Which is not to say that there may not be one, but contemporary figurative sculpture is very much a white thing (all the sculptors I mentioned above are white). I’m sure any white sculptor would have loved the opportunity to portray King in an important commission like this. But it would have been embarrassing to admit that they needed a white guy to make the King memorial because there wasn’t a black guy who could do the job.

So: there were no suitable black American sculptors, and a white American sculptor was out of the question. What to do? Give the commission to a Chinese! Sure, a Chinese sculptor is not black, but at least he’s not white. So what if the sculpture he creates looks like Chicom propaganda? Western figurative sculpture is just an oppressive white art form, anyway! But that raises another question: if anything associated with white people had to be excluded, why choose pink-white granite (the color of white people) to portray MLK instead of, say, Chinese Shanxi black granite? Black granite must have been considered. I’m surprised they passed on it. Maybe they decided that a thirty foot colossus in black granite would have been truly oppressive. Maybe they decided that white just looks better on a man.

Jim C. writes:

Mr. Ecicson speculates that there were no good black sculptors out there. Meet Denver’s Ed Dwight.


LA replies:

I assume Jim is joking. The Dwight sculture is of the flowing, formless, non-Western, “Africanist” style which even today’s multicultural America would not go for in a major national monument.

Jim C. replies:
No, I was not joking. I’m not crazy about his work, but I like it because it is Africanist, and I think it would have been interesting to see how Dwight would have depicted King. Let’s face it: that Chinese “artist” is not only untalented, but unimaginative. Perhaps Dwight would have created something that depicted King as the product of African American history (e.g., the circular motif), or he could have depicted him speaking to a garbageman on the day of his death.

LA replies:

But of course there was nothing “African” about King. If you really believe that a memorial done in such a style would have been appropriate for a national monument in Washington, D.C., I question your judgment.

Jim C. repies:

You’re always questioning my judgment. If I had been the art director I would have instructed Dwight to create something with the feel of this other Dwight sculpture on the underground railroad. Note its humanity. That is precisely what is missing in the Chinese artist’s work.

Dennis Dale writes:

Re Mr. Ericson’s take on the statue, here’s what I wrote on my own blog about the irony:

They could not find a capable black sculptor. They would not have a white one. Or they simply didn’t want to pay a decent wage. So the Chinese, who disdain democracy and embrace ethnic nationalism, who despise black Americans and view America’s experience with multiculturalism and diversity as “chaos” largely because of the civil rights movement, who have contributed nothing to the advancement of individual or minority rights—they have the same, or greater claim to the civil democratic tradition than an American of European descent, whose forefathers have been dying for centuries to advance the cause.

A Communist Chinese national creating an image of an African American to harry European Americans about legal and political rights. And none dare note the ironic affront. This is the inverted empire of American multiculturalism, where hypocritical foreigners use the perverted language of civil rights to impose upon us an oppressive mediocrity.

He’s all yours, Mr. Lei. But just between you and me, he ain’t really all that.

See here too.

LA replies:

All right!

Timothy A. writes:

I believe that the reason the commission was given to a Chinese is entirely related to money. The memorial was to have been privately funded, with the Foundation in charge of the memorial setting a fundraising goal of $120 million. From what I have been able to gather, the U.S. government gave $10 million (plus, of course the public land the memorial is located on), with the rest to be raised privately (similarly, $197 million was raised for the World War II memorial, with the Government kicking in $16 million).

Apparently, Black Americans may love MLK, but not enough actually to donate money to put up a monument in DC. The memorial Foundation had a hard time raising the required cash, with a large part of the money coming from corporations (GM, Disney, etc.) and rich white guys (George Lucas, Bill Gates, etc.).

The Foundation was still significantly short of its fundraising goal when it chose the Chinese sculptor. Money factors in here in two ways. First, the cost of fabricating the sculpture in China is significantly less (no hard figures seem to be available). Second, the head of the Foundation mentioned that due to the choice of a Chinese sculptor, China might make a substantial donation which would close the gap between the funds actually raised and the amount targeted ($120 million). The shortfall at that time was apparently $25 million. This led to several reports (in blogs, Wikipedia and other untrustworthy sources), that in exchange for the Chinese sculptor being chosen, China made a $25 million donation to the memorial. I have not seen this confirmed by any authoritative source (nor have I seen it denied by any such source).

Why didn’t King’s children object to a Chinese sculptor being chosen (indeed, they strongly defended the choice)? Once again—money. In exchange for allowing King’s name and likeness to be used for fundraising, the King family insisted that the Foundation pay substantial licensing fees to King family-controlled foundations. The latest figure I have seen is $832,000. These kickbacks were paid out of the donations to the memorial Foundation.

Elena G. writes:

I would be grateful to Timothy A. if he would send the source of his information about the kickbacks paid to the King family for their licensing of King’s likeness. If true—and I’m not doubting Timothy’s veracity, just interested in seeing the details for myself—why is this not a huge scandal? An enormous statue is erected honoring their own family member, and they want to be paid for the government, the foundation, and the American people’s being able to put up and see this statue? Really? Do they get royalties every time MLK day is celebrated? Am I the only one whom this inspires with almost unutterable disgust?

LA replies:

It wasn’t kickbacks, but fees paid outright for the use of King’s likeness, words, etc. This is not a secret but has been widely covered. It’s mentioned in the Wiki article about the King memorial. And, yes, it’s disgusting.

R.C. Smith writes:

A local city (Shreveport, LA) did make sure a black sculptor made its local MLK memorial. Here is the result:

A possible reason the Memorial commission
chose a Chinese sculptor?

If memory serves this was the second attempt at an MLK memorial, the first, a bas-relief also by a black artist, was rejected. I may be wrong about that, though.

If King memorial in D.C. hadn’t been made in China I’d say this pharaonic rendition was a perfect example, set in stone, of how blacks must be cast in the movies and TV. I’m surprised they didn’t have Samuel L. Jackson pose for it. There must have been some American input, certainly the size must have been dictated by the U.S. committee. They could have saved money by making the statue smaller, say 20 feet, but the harder the pitch the poorer the product, and as America declines into Third World status the “Civil Rights as ultimate goodness” myth will be harder to sell. They’re going to need a BIG statue.

LA replies:

Excellent point. I mean, it’s a horrible point, but an excellent point.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 19, 2011 08:11 AM | Send

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