Thursday, September 1, 2011
MARTIN LUTHER KING MARTYR
I've been seeing news about the new Martin Luther King memorial statue in DC. I don't relish being another one to complain about it, but haven't found it satisfying according to my own particular taste and integrity. First, it's in white marble. Strikes me as denial---"he wasn't really what you'd call a nigger." That part can be somewhat overlooked, but there is also black marble, and he was a black Alabama man wearing a black suit in a racist nation that thinks very much in white and black. The worst is that he looks more like J Edgar Hoover than Martin Lucifer Coon (as he was known by the Reagan administration). That bullish stance with arms folded in front, body language for I'm not listening to you, strikes me not Martin Luther King at all. It's actually the stance of a white man, even if it's not Hoover.
Seems like the statue of Gandhi in Union Square, NYC, might have been a better model go by for MLK. Gandhi's statue is not much larger than life, if larger. It's been so many years since I've seen it, I don't recall exactly. I do recall being stopped for a moment noting that it was life-sized instead of monumentally larger than life. The designers of this memorial for MLK were thinking monumentally. Kantital B Patel, the sculptor of the Gandhi statue, was thinking in terms of Gandhi as just a man, not a big abstraction of the mind. I feel like the idea of making MLK so much larger than life is to make the viewer "look up to him." Martin Luther King was just a man. I believe Coretta would be the first to affirm this. There's nothing wrong with being just a man. Any more than that is symbolism. It's to identify him with THE ROCK, a firm, solid stance, a forbidding presence, even a face without feeling, standing up to the white oppressor, I will not be moved. This looks to me like using symbolism the way the Catholic Church used symbolism of the spirit to dress men in golden slippers and gowns trimmed in gold, much gold. Metal gold is no more the spirit than a cast iron fire hydrant is.
Maya Angelou got her face in the press again having an issue with the words, a paraphrase of something he said that in her words made him sound arrogant. It broke the major rule of making a simile, don't use it to diminish. Calling his role a drum major diminishes his place in the hearts of the black people of America. Seems like there are plenty of more representative quotations in his I Have A Dream speech he's most loved for. He was a visionary, not a baton twirler. To call him anything less than a visionary diminishes his reason for having a public statue in DC. To make a Baptist preacher from the Deep South, who happens to be black, big and threatening is like gold representing the spirit of God. It's not what it is. They're opposite ends of the spectrum spirit-gas-liquid-solid. King preached the word of God, had his life threatened all day and night every day, lived among suffering people as one of them, cared about the least of them. I believe he was a man whose voice God heard.
It doesn't do, however, for me to assess a work of public art, because I can't help but see it with an artist eye, and what I think of as art and what the general public thinks of as art often don't correspond. But, given this is public art and the best thing for me to do is pay it no mind, I can't help but think of Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial. Symbolically, I find this MLK statue so weighted down with lofty symbolism it has no lightness of being. It's a big solid white rock. He's standing in the rock like he's part of the rock. Very good for symbolism, but it's a little too 19th century, neo-classical. Even too much expecting a glossy new Ford pickup with big tires to climb that mountain of stone. Of course, we have committees making decisions. A camel is a horse created by a committee. My thought when I saw the image this morning on Yahoo news was a horse created by a committee. Maya Lin made that sculpture to the Civil Rights period in Montgomery, Alabama, and they don't get much better than what she did there. Of course, committees don't much go for art. So I have to remind myself I have no business judging it. It's outside my realm of interest. It suggests to me Soviet art, like Lenin or Stalin. I think it was called Soviet Realism. I know it's not right to say such a thing, but it's what I see. Nonetheless, I have to confess, the more I look at pictures of it, allowing it to be itself without the projection of my ego onto it, my aesthetic sense, I find it quite beautiful. I imagine standing before it would be a powerful feeling. Perhaps that feeling is what it's about.
It was amusing this morning to read Maya Angelou pronouncing disapproval upon the quotation they used. I happened to agree. She had a perfectly valid point. Read a little further along in the article and it turns out she was on the board for planning the thing and never attended a meeting. Oops. Sounds like something I'd do. I went to the website to see if I could find what they had to say about it. Everything was written in such governmentese I stopped reading after a short while. Watched the video, which was quite beautiful. Seeing the statue from a distance down the corridor between rows of trees, it's quite striking. Brought to mind the statue of Crazy Horse a Polish sculptor started working on in a mountain in the Black Hills. It had that larger than life majesty about it that is altogether unreal. I believe I'd rather see MLK lifesize squatting down to eye level with a throng of little kids around him, the kids being the future in the quotation the video opened with, which really should have been the quotation on the monument, but it's probably used so many places it isn't rare enough.
I may not get there with ya,
but I want you to know tonight
that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.
These words say it for me what King was about---I may not get there with ya---because his vision goes beyond his own life to the lives of all American black people. I do hope they take that present quotation off the memorial and put something real that's from his soul. That's what he was about. Also, there is the biggest reason of all why this is none of my business and I'd best leave it alone. I'm not black. It's not color of skin. It's experience. I don't have black experience. In the civil rights years, I felt a longing to be a part of helping the black people get out from under the dark cloud of whiteness. Walked in a few marches. I knew some black kids growing up, was friendly with them, saw first-hand they were people just like me. There was so much racial tension after 1954, I began right away to realize that all the friendly black people I'd known before were not really feeling friendly. They were puttin on the jive for the white boy. That was the first thing to change in 1954.
Black kids were forced to go to school with white kids and they liked it even less than the white kids. First thing, they collected themselves into gangs for protection and became another menace to nerdy white kids without any tough guy backup. What I've seen since then is the black people taking an interest in the benefit of all black people, not just the first ones to start making big money. I don't mean I see a lot of helping the down and out, but I see the recognition that this is part of the black experience and these people must be represented too. A momentum I've seen over the last half century is headed in a direction where the black people in future some time will greet each other as brother and sister, not allowing anyone to be down and out by taking care of them that can't help it. After this time of tribulation and into the coming thousand years of peace those old wrinkles of racism will surely be ironed out of the American character. They will have to be ironed out for there to be peace.
Only difference I ever saw between the races was a little bit of pigment and culture, theirs a humble minority culture, mine an arrogant majority culture, and the same bigger culture. I heard I believe it was Stokeley Carmichael telling white people to stay out of the black movement. White people move in and take over. And we don't know anything about the black experience. I heard it. I saw at the moment I heard him saying it on the news around 1964 the truth in what he was saying. Even though I think I wouldn't be like that, I would. I saw the best I can do to help is stay out of the way, allow the liberation to have a character particularly of the black experience. There is much they have to go through together as a people to reach their promised land. Racism is all over the world, even inside races, an expression of the human ego, one of many millions or billions of expressions of Self above all. My suspicion is the black people of America are working out racism for all of humanity. It's a heavy load. It's monumental. It's worth dying for.