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 late civil rights leader resembles the type of art more commonly used to commemorate totalitarian dictators.
On those grounds, the little-known U.S. 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," read a letter from commission secretary Thomas Luebke, 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 in the past.
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 whole 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.
Franklin D. Roosevelt once said that if ever a monument were made to him, it should be the size of his desk. He didn't get his wish -- his memorial near the mall includes four sprawling parts for four terms -- but its main sculpture of the former president features him in an unimposing position, seated with his Scottish terrier.
The now widely praised Vietnam Veterans Memorial was initially criticized for being anti-heroic, 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 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? That seems to be what happened with opponents of the proposed memorial to honor the 9/11 victims of United Flight 93, who voiced concerns earlier this month that L.A.-based architect Paul Murdoch's design evoked an Islamic crescent. (If so, it was coincidence, not subversion. Murdoch followed the topography of the land in Pennsylvania where the plane crashed, and has since added additional features so the memorial resembles a circle.)
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 Tse-tung. 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 had 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 the Lei would consider altering the texture of the sculpture in order to create a sense that King is emerging from the stone, per 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 U.S.-led invasion is quite unlike the King model. Hussein'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.