Every now and again I drive past the intersection of Martin Luther King and Oretha Castle Haley in Central City. There, in the neutral ground, stands a statue that can only be described as a Lovecraftian horror. The ten-foot tall egg-shaped grotesque features several sets of hands with misshapen, distended fingers reaching out in bizarre fashion.
It’s a wonderfully disturbing statue, something straight out of movie “Beetlejuice.” Alas, there is no plaque on the statue, or other indication of what this nightmarish form was intended for. It simply appears to be a bit of random art with no specific purpose.
Once I decided that I simply had to know the background of this masterwork of creepiness. I discovered that the sculpture was installed 38 years ago, in 1976, in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The sculptor, Frank Hayden, explained that “the shape represents life and growth, and the arms and hands are reaching out for brotherhood.”
Regrettably, this is one case where the sculptor’s intentions didn’t quite match the reality. The entire effect is more demonic and disturbing than a tinder tribute to life, growth, and brotherhood. For this reason, the statue received mixed reviews. People expecting a giant bronze statue of King were instead greeted with something presumably gave their children nightmares.
In modern times, public art has increasingly faced this problem. Freed from the shackles of the standards governing classical sculpture, sculptors are free to imagine and reimagine symbols and forms to their bloody heart’s content. Sometimes this gets you a gem, like the familiar “LOVE” statue in Philadelphia. Alas, that’s usually the exception.
However, at least the Martin Luther King memorial is attractive in some sense. Since then, though, the city has grown lazy. Recently, the city started sprucing up the neutral ground along Claiborne near the freeway. This was long overdue (especially the lighting upgrades), and the results have generally been positive, yet one bit of the project seems to lack a visible purpose.
Near the intersection of South Claiborne and Jackson, a metal-tubed dome has been erected, looking like some unfinished gazebo. I never knew exactly what the purpose of this dome was because, lacking a roof, it couldn’t serve as shelter from the elements. Thus, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to mosey over and see exactly what it was.
And, it’s a civil rights memorial. Sure enough, this very publication reported that some sort of memorial would be in the offing two years ago, back in May 2012. Apparently I had missed the story, because when confronted with the structure I was downright befuddled.
Points along the border of the dome feature the names and stories of various civil rights legends. It’s educational, at least when you get up close.
Nevertheless, when most people view the memorial they do so while driving by, from a distance. And from a distance, it looks incomplete or pointless. Worse, in featuring a skeleton of a dome, it vaguely resembles the notorious Hiroshima dome. Sure, it wasn’t intended, but it’s difficult not to think along those lines when faced with the incongruity of a structure that doesn’t shelter.
We don’t need to doggedly stick with giant bronze statues of figures to create meaningful memorials, but surely we can do better than this in commemorating the Civil Rights movement. The notorious Battle of Liberty Place, an event that draws embarrassment from New Orleanians, was commemorated with a large stone obelisk. Lee Circle features a roundabout where a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee stands atop a giant pillar.
Yet in Central City, commemoration of the civil rights movement is being accomplished, in large part, by an egg with hands and a tubular steel dome. At the risk of being an armchair art critic, I find it all a bit lacking. If I have to go to Google to figure out that something is a memorial, it has failed as a memorial. The civil rights movement deserves better than ambiguity. It deserves powerful monuments that eclipse those reflecting a more dubious past.
Perhaps next time, a clearer, more traditional monument should be considered, like the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. on South Claiborne that serves as the end point for each year’s march in his honor. We’re rightfully proud of the strides made in civil rights; perhaps we should do more to show it.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.