If art is a singular expression, then by nature the best art is controversial. But when art stirs debate for reasons besides its creative merits, that's when things get bent.
Things are bent in Washington, DC where they are building the Martin Luther King memorial.
Probably you haven't heard this as the story primarily involves people of color, but not crime, so the MSM has pretty much given it the go-by. The MLK memorial foundation recently swapped out the sculptor of a centerpiece statue of Dr. King. It happens on big projects. Creative differences and all that.
So what's the issue?
The issue is the memorial foundation put a black American to the curb -- Ed Dwight, who besides being an artist was also the first black American astronaut -- and brought in a Chinese man to do the statue. Not a Chinese American. A Chinese guy from China. Lei Yixin.
This one is tough. When I heard about Dwight being replaced and Lei being brought on my gut reaction was: no. No way should somebody who's not a black American do up the national memorial likeness of one of the most prominent of us.
I wasn't the only one with the feeling in my gut. There's an entire Web site dedicated to keeping Dr. King "ours."
But you give it a second, you put your initial passions aside, and it is possible to see things in a different way. "No" softens into "why not?" Why not let Dr. King go global? Weren't he and his message phenomena beyond the Lower 48? What King borrowed from Ghandi, he lent to the likes of Ivan Cooper, the Northern Ireland civil rights activist. And perhaps a Chinese person getting the job is not outsourcing work, but exporting the ideals of freedom. We've seen how well that plays when distributed by the muzzle of an army gun. Better we should try to inspire. Better we should try by sharing "our" man of compassion with the world.
Being able to see Lei Yixin not as "the Chinese guy," but as one of Dr. King's "children" is what Dr. King preached: judging people by their content, not their pigment. I think you can extend that to a person's place of origin. Certainly it can be extended to the political system under which they live. And how wonderful would it be for an oppressed people to be able to sculpt an image of the personification of freedom? Not to mention the high irony as J. Edgar Hoover, among King detractors, accused the doctor of being a commie or a commie tool. It's enough to make J. Edgar Hoover roll over in his black chiffon dress.
Did I say black chiffon dress? I meant grave. GRAVE!
The intent of the MLK Memorial Foundation might not be as high-minded as I give them credit for.
It's possible the reason a Chinese artist has been selected to shape Dr. King isn't to spread the love, as it were, but to get some green. The Los Angeles Times reports that in exchange for selecting Lei as the sculptor, Dwight says, the Chinese government may donate as much as $25 million to the memorial foundation -- one quarter of the estimated $100 million price tag. The foundation, of course, denies this. But if it is true, if the foundation ends up accepting any significant amount of money from the Chinese government, it will not merely negate any nobility in the act of Lei's selection, it will also bastardize everything that Dr. King stood for. His dream of a better world inverted into a simple grab for cash.
Only time will tell.
Although not everyone is paying attention, some of us are definitely watching.