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MLK memorial: A statue fit for a King?

Critics say the memorial smacks of totalitarian art.

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Decades after it was first proposed, 12 years after fundraising started, and only months before construction is set to begin, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial is mired in controversy – with some artists and art historians saying that Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin's rendering of the civil rights leader resembles the type of art more commonly used to commemorate totalitarian dictators.

On those grounds, the little-known US Commission of Fine Arts, whose approval is required before the project can proceed, proposed last month that the sculpture be reworked.

"In general, the commission members found that the colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed statue recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries," commission secretary Thomas Luebke wrote in a letter, which was part of a routine review of the proposed memorial, still set to open in 2010.

It's unclear why the commission chose to voice its concerns now, since it approves the project as a whole, and has looked at earlier versions and models of the statue.

What is clear is that the commission's apparent reference to the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad in 2003 highlights once again the unease with which Americans have approached the idea of monuments. Over the years, art critics have noted the difficulty a democracy such as the United States faces when it tries to commemorate wars and heroes without recalling the hulking art of a dictatorship.


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