‘The Embrace’ is good art, but not good public art

Tribute to MLK and Coretta Scott King misses the mark

I AGREE WITH those who say “The Embrace” tribute to Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King is good art. But it may not be good public art.

Good public art, as understood both in the academy and among regular folks, is art that evokes both historical memory and challenges us in ordering our future and civic flourishing. Good public art serves the purposes of civic amelioration; it is representative of what we honor about our past and what we can embrace about our possibilities and common social ambitions for the future.

Perhaps “The Embrace” makes too many assumptions about what ordinary people expect in public art and downplays the challenges public art might present publicly as a work of cultural spectacle.

If public art is intended to provoke introspection and civic desire about where we must direct ourselves,  then it should be accessible and resonate as belonging to the people who wish to reflect upon its beauty and challenges. Perhaps “The Embrace” unfairly privileges the artistic sensibilities of dubious European modernism and a kind of post-structural form of aesthetic production that eludes most of us.

I do not object to “The Embrace.” It is a charismatic piece of exceptional aesthetic rendition. I wonder, however, if it achieves the goals of good public art, that ability to capture attention and demand personal and communal change without unnecessary distraction.

Perhaps the commitments made by the artist who rendered the sculpture (and the Embrace committee) display too little empathy toward the common expectations that are anticipated in “good” public art. People who view public art seek first to grasp its meaning. Second, they look for its prophetic content—in this case, what we might take it to say about democracy, mutual regard, and the promise of community. It is meant to appeal, as Abraham Lincoln would say, to “the better angels of our nature.”

The high-minded commitments the so-called elite possess about public art often lack clear historical resonance. It can be argued that “The Embrace” is too “high culture” and as such is undemocratic, that it is distracting, at best, or inaccessible, at worst.

Perhaps the reason why some ordinary black folks in Boston consider “The Embrace” appalling is because it is exceedingly opaque and far removed from expectations of common people in Boston.

For many blacks in Boston—particularly those who live far removed from the powerful whites and the economic elites who control the city, “The Embrace” represented an opportunity to be seen and not remain subjected to the continuous erasure experienced since Africans arrived here as slaves near Faneuil Hall. As many black folks online have said to me, it was insulting that Kings are depicted in the memorial only through their arms and hands, disconnected from their visage and their bodies.

Those who trade in the production of public art must be generous enough to connect with the minds of those they propose to engage in serious thinking about the state of the demos.

To this end, public art is a “process” where people can come to commune and conceptualize the social spaces and relationships of their time; public art, on this level, is supposed to be soulful. It is emancipatory. It is prophetic of what Rev. King would call the “beloved community,” or the promised land of civic opportunity. Thus, all good public art is a matter of social ethics.

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“The Embrace” is a wonder to behold. But it might be best physically sited at a venue like Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art, where the elite might endlessly muse and pontificate upon its ethereal beauty. Is “The Embrace” good art?  Yes. But it may well be misplaced art.

For now, a memorial that embraces the fullest images of the Kings in Boston and across America remains elusive.

Kevin Peterson is the founder of the New Democracy Coalition and an affiliate faculty member at Boston University’s Center for Anti-Racist Research.