Martin Luther King Was White?

That, at least, is the strong impression given by the monumental new sculpture of King being unveiled to the public today in Washington, followed Sunday by its grand presidential dedication. The builders of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial say that they were looking for stone with the right Washington vibe, but they ended up choosing granite with a striking resemblance to pale, freckled skin.

That is just one of several faults that make the new memorial a pretty strange and weak work of art. But with so many people excited at the arrival of a monument that, for the first time on our National Mall, honors a person of color, an activist, and a peacenik, I have to wonder whether its artistic success will end up having anything much to do with the success of its commemoration—or even whether art and monuments ever have that close a connection.

But first, a word or two more on those faults. To find their blush-colored stone, the memorial's architects had to head all the way to China, where they also found the artist Lei Yixin, declared a master sculptor by the aesthetes of that Communist state, and charged him with carving a likeness of the great African-American leader. (In a curious reversal of the “whitewashing” of black skin seen in photos from Dr. King¹s time, the official photos of his new memorial mostly show his statue’s face in shadow, making him look a touch less Caucasian.)

On top of being too pink, the sculpture Lei carved is also too small: At 29 feet tall, it is dwarfed by most decent-size trees. From likely viewpoints around the Tidal Basin that laps up against the MLK site from the great Jefferson and FDR memorials, for instance. King looks postage-stampish. The builders of the best other memorials have realized that, to really achieve an impressive scale, you have to house your statue in an imposing building (the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials), or give it an expansive footprint (FDR’s). With the Washington Monument looming nearby to tell visitors what big really is, no carved figure could be big enough to count.

Even from its own four-acre site stony, hot, and forbidding, but maybe more welcoming once its fountains are turned on, the King sculpture isn’t so much monumental as overbearing and ponderous. Its Communist roots show clearly; it shouts its importance at you, like a party leader with a bullhorn. (The capital’s Commission of Fine Arts complained about this in 2008, hammering the statue's “Social Realist style,” but its views had little effect.

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