Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Outsourced
Last Summer, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was unveiled in its rightful place on the National Mall. But like so many other things in our country, the construction of the memorial was outsourced to China. The placement of a memorial to the civil right’s leader was first proposed 27 years ago. Since then the project has faced numerous hurdles, but it ultimately culminated in the 30-foot granite statue that now sits tucked in between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Unlike its neighboring memorials, which were the work of American sculptors, a Chinese sculptor crafted the likeness of Martin Luther King Jr.
Lei Yixin was chosen to sculpt the statue after much debate, and this choice was met with criticism. Many felt that an African-American artist – or at the very least an American artist – should be chosen to craft the memorial. The foundation responsible for the choice says that the only criterion used in the decision was artistic ability. Lei’s experience with granite and large national monuments gave him a boost. Lei also brought around a dozen workers to the U.S. with him to construct the monument, causing an uproar among American stonemasons.
While Lei may have great artistic talent, giving a project that should be a source of national pride to an artist from another country sends the wrong message. The monuments on the National Mall are a testament to American leadership, and they should reflect the best craftsmanship that can be found in the United States. There are many talented artists in the United States who could have completed a worthy monument, but a misguided choice was made to ignore the intangible aspects connected to the work.
Proponents of the choice have said that Dr. King’s message of tolerance for all people meshes well with the choice of a Chinese sculptor, and the Chinese workers involved have declared that work on the monument is a matter of national pride in their home country. But Lei’s body of work also includes monuments to Mao Tse-Tung,who was hardly a proponent of civil rights. Additionally, China’s government — who declared Lei a master sculptor and gave him a lifetime stipend — is anything but tolerant, and has a record of lashing out against artists in particular who do not conform to the views of the ruling party. Last year prominent Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei was detained for three months and subjected to psychological torture, likely due to his politically charged art. Many critics speculate that Ai was used as an example by the government in order to curb any descent.
A country that treats its citizens in this way should not be rewarded with a source of national pride, and certainly does not reflect the values that Martin Luther King Jr. espoused. Our policies have made it so that many companies must outsource jobs to make themselves competitive, but this monument represents a missed opportunity to keep the work in the United States. Lei’s artistic merit is evident, but the merit of the committee that chose him to do the work is questionable.