An Inappropriate And Ineffective Embrace?
MLK Day has come and gone, but a controversy surrounding its namesake has appeared.
Last Friday, the memorial “The Embrace” was unveiled in Boston’s 1965 Freedom Plaza, where Dr. King gave a speech in 1965. It is 22 feet tall and made of bronze, depicting two pairs of arms interlocked in a passionate, well, embrace. Conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas was inspired by a photo of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, embracing after he won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
Here is a video in which you can see all angles of the statue.
The memorial has generated much controversy due to its cost and design, including by Mrs. Scott-King’s cousin, Oakland activist Seneca Scott. Depending on the angle that you view it, especially online, the pair of arms can appear as quite different objects. Its cost of $10 million, which was entirely funded by private donations, can seem outlandish at a moment when people are struggling to make ends meet. Furthermore, it’s not immediately evident who the subjects of the memorial are.
Initially, I found the memorial to be confusing and wasteful. I couldn’t figure out what it was trying to convey, so I turned to those who had visited it in person.
On the popular site Reddit, user MadStopsnow wrote a very insightful reaction:
“…I arrived thinking I didn’t like it and left thinking it was great. As art, it’s hard to divine the artist’s intentions without asking. But I would offer that Dr. King and his wife holding each other isn’t what they wanted to convey.
There is an inscription behind it that says something along the lines of: Love, is really important, and when we believe in something being strong about love is really what it takes to get something done….
Anyhow, while looking at it, it occurred to me that the statue was totally related to the quote. It’s two people hugging/holding each other tight. It could be anyone. The fact that there is no face there, and there is an empty space between them means it could be you, or me. The statue is all about (in my mind) this unconditional love and a force that love can convey on society. So in some ways its not just a statue about MLK saying “Look at this guy” but instead a statute about something he said preaching love as a changing force in the world.
And as I sat there staring at it, I thought “this is good.”
So, for all the people who dislike it, I would invite you to go stand in front of it, and in it, and read the inscription, and think deeply about what MLK did. You still may not like the statue, but I hope you feel its better than you though when you arrived.”
First, how many of the critics went to Boston and viewed the memorial in the Freedom Plaza, as it was meant to be viewed? I doubt many.
Some art can be consumed irrespective of location, such as many novels or music via streaming apps. But other forms must be consumed in their “natural habitat.” The memorial is for the Boston community in particular, and without being there, its impact is lost.
I had a similar experience with regard to visual arts. Looking at Rembrandt or Da Vinci paintings in a book or online was nothing compared to being in the art gallery, absorbing their size, dimensions, colors and so on.
Second, MadStopsnow felt that the memorial helped her think deeply about what MLK did. This sort of impact cannot be measured in dollars and cents, at least not in this moment. How many people will visit “The Embrace” each day? How will it affect them? Could a new generation of civil rights and social justice leadership emerge, partially due to art like this? “The Embrace” will be enjoyed countless times by an uncountable audience. If it lasts several generations, then that is 10 million well spent.
Granted, the cost is not inconsequential. Charitable organizations could address many practical concerns with 10 million. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that no taxpayer funds were used. In addition, the debate of practicality vs. idealism has always existed. There are countless problems that plague the human world like starvation, war, environmental collapse and individuals, including myself, spend money on leisure activities including different forms of art. To suggest the memorial should not have been put up because more practical concerns could be addressed doesn’t make sense to me.
Third, let us consider MadStopsnow’s point that “the statue is all about this unconditional love and a force that love can convey on society.” Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement worked tirelessly for people to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. After his death, Mrs. Scott-King advocated for other disadvantaged groups, such as LGBTQI+.
Part of the Kings’ lasting legacy is that their message is universal: it’s not only about them and the African-American community, but of every group in the United States. Judge everyone by what they do, not what they are. As MadStopsnow states, “the fact that there is no face there, and there is an empty space between them means it could be you, or me.” Ironically, the best way to honor Dr. King is to have a blank memorial or statue, in which any individual from any group can insert themselves in an universal and loving embrace. There are plenty of excellent statues and monuments that clearly depict his likeness, so it’s not as if we have to choose between “The Embrace” and those pieces.
Sometimes, art isn’t about being the most technically proficient or sensually striking. Sometimes, art is about getting you to ask questions and reconsider what you previously thought to be settled. “The Embrace” got me to think about the Kings, civil rights, social justice, compassion and love in a more distinct, visceral way that I otherwise would have. I consider that a win.
I hope it does the same for you.