The controversy surrounding the commissioning, design and construction of the Martin Luther King Memorial is well known (click picture above to go to article). But it didn’t limit the Chinese artist who finally completed the piece from using his knowledge of sculpting and architecture to engage with the knowledge embedded in King’s own words and transform them into a physical embodiment of the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the US. What you think of the result is personal and subjective; but it is certainly a good example of how art and artists are able to transcend the tangles people get into over values.
Here are some of the arguments involved in the ethical controversy with the underlying assumptions they hold (can you make a counter argument?):
1/ Cultural bias: the commission should have gone to a black artist – assumption: a black artist would know intuitively ‘from the inside’ the impact of King’s achievement.
2/ Ideological bias: the final work reflects too much the political ‘cult of personality’ associated with the Soviet and Chinese regimes and therefore taints the spiritual message of King’s words with a political (communist) agenda – assumption: religion is free and detached of political influences & that King’s approach was not political.
3/ Artistic chauvinism: social realist genre of the artwork projects the wrong values like those associated with negative propaganda and dictatorial authority – assumption: any other genre of art is value free or projects ‘better’ values.
4/ Economic sovereignty: this is largely implied. Why outsource work and materials for a project that could just as well be paid for using North America labour and resources? Assumption: it’s better for the economic growth (and national pride?) to keep things ‘in house’, so to speak.
Whatever the arguments and counter claims about the quality of the art work itself, perhaps the most powerful statement it makes is in the symbolic placement of the monument in a direct eye line between the Washington memorial (to celebrate the end of slavery in the US) and the Jefferson memorial (to celebrate the central tenet of the US Constitution: ‘life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness’. Now that’s an imaginative construction of knowledge.
When you consider that Lei Yixin speaks no English and read the speeches in translation, it adds to the power of the creative process: our ethical values may confine and constrict the artist, but the imagination of the human spirit always finds a way to express itself.