In November, Gilbert Young visited Barre, Vermont, the “Granite Center of the World,” on behalf of an organization called King is Ours.
His mission was to direct attention to a decision by the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, which has awarded the commission for the production of the centerpiece of a planned memorial to Dr. King to a communist Chinese sculptor named Lei Yixin.
Young asks if an American artist couldn’t have been found to sculpt good American granite, not Chinese, into the planned three-story image of Dr. King and, furthermore, why not a black American artist?
These are pretty good questions that evoke a classic artistic issue, the relationship between the character of the artist and the art he or she produces. After all, Yixin has spent part of his artistic life building large-scale monuments to a repressive regime in China, including grand likenesses in honor of the dictator Mao Zedong.
Furthermore, can a Chinese man understand, appreciate, and interpret artistically the black American experience? Gilbert Young, the 66-year-old black artist who founded King is Ours, doesn’t think so. His point is well taken: What white man could have written “Invisible Man”?
I wasn’t sure how I should feel about this or, more important, how blacks feel about it, so I asked a student of mine, a young black woman that I’ve known for a couple of years, what she thought about it. She rolled her eyes and said that Gilbert Young’s perspective sounds like the same one that her grandmother and great-grandmother (97 years old) would have. She asked what difference the nationality or race of the artist makes. After all, she said, Mount Rushmore could have been carved by a “Chinaman,” and we wouldn’t know the difference.
Rushmore wasn’t carved by a “Chinaman,” of course, but by a Danish-American named Gutzon Borglum. Borglum was a talented artist who devoted much of his artistic energy to the creation of larger-than-life statues and monuments in bronze and stone. His magnum opus, of course, is his rendering of the colossal visages of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln, the patriotic monument on Mount Rushmore that will continue to gaze over the former homeland of the Lakota Sioux for many millennia beyond the time when the United States will have become an ancient memory.
Borglum was also an outspoken anti-Semite who was very cozy with the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, according to at least one biographer, Borglum hoped to get a Klansman into the White House. Maybe the attitudes of the artist aren’t as important as the art.
For all practical purposes, granite lasts forever. By comparison, our brief lives-even the lifespan of our nation-don’t amount to much. No doubt we should be careful about the kind of monument that we render in that hardy stone.
But if we insist on devoting $100 million to someone’s eternal memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. is a good candidate. He represents a group of extremely courageous men and women who risked their lives-or gave them-in order to transform our country with regard to race. King’s battle took place here at home, but his gospel of equality reached far beyond the South and the borders of the United States.
So allowing Lei Yixin to carve King’s image in the context of a larger memorial planned and developed by people of various races would be entirely consistent with the principles of a man who taught us to at least try to be color-blind. Yixin may have carved a few monuments to Mao Zedong, but I suspect that if you hope to be an artist in China, it’s difficult to avoid such occasional tasks.
But at least let’s use American granite, perhaps from Vermont. I have no way of knowing if it’s better or worse than Chinese granite or if it’ll last a century or two longer. But it’s close by. What would it cost in fossil fuel to haul enough granite from China to create a statue 3 stories tall?
Finally, let’s attempt to adopt the color-blind attitudes of my young black student; success at this task would represent our finest possible monument to Martin Luther King, Jr.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. . E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu)