Jun 022014
 
(photo by Owen Courreges)

(photo by Owen Courreges)

Owen Courreges

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.

(photo by Owen Courreges)

(photo by Owen Courreges)

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.

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  • Romulus

    I’m sure we can all take comfort in the knowledge that these and other striking landmarks were erected at great expense that supplemented the income of a not-inconsiderable number of well-connected artisans who, in their respective ways, gained the ability to bestow reciprocal sign of gratitude upon their forward-thinking benefactors.

  • best_in_show

    Owen, I agree with everything you said. As an artist and one-time art critic in ARTS Magazine, I often had to “hold my tongue”. Let’s not forget that for every graduating class in whatever field, there has to be some who were at the bottom of the class. This is nowhere more noticeable than the field of architecture, and in connection, the area of architectural embellishment, public sculpture. We can choose to stay away from galleries that have nothing to offer, but “public” art is something we are forced to look at, sometimes every day. Imagine working in a building in which your office faced such monstrosities. For every work of art there are uncounted approaches to a commission. Who knows what goes through a sculptor’s head as he or she conceives of the problem. Sometimes is comes down to a simple lack of skill, not only in the use of materials, but a lack of vision. What would we want to replace that “tribute” to Martin Luther King, a piece by the most successful and hated artist de jour, Jeff Koons? Perhaps his “Michael Jackson” in polychromed ceramic? Koons does not even make his own work, but uses a platoon of workers under his supervision. Or, would you prefer his huge painted steel version of balloon doggies? Truthfully, I think I would prefer a colorful and cheerful Koons to the pieces you cite. Public works will always annoy some people, usually for the wrong reasons: narrow-minded attitudes about art in general or objections to the subject.
    Many years ago, in lower Manhattan, in front of the World Trade Center, a enormous wall of black steel, gently curving into the space people used for outdoor pleasure. The outcry against this sculpture, by Richard Serra, was the topic of debate for a long time. The actual work was breathtakingly beautiful and an expression of the artist’s ideas about space and scale. The scathing objection to this piece was not so much about the work, itself, but its intrusion into an otherwise wide-open plaza for people to wander into and bask in the unbroken peace of the plaza. No one could possibly question Serra’s command of his materials or the integrity of his concept. But, to many, it was a nightmare of “scale”. The “Tilted Arc” was certainly a thing of uncommon beauty; it just made people mad for other reasons.

  • QuienesSomos

    Can someone at Uptown Messenger PLEASE provide an update on the St. Charles streetcar line? It seems the contractor has torn up the same tracks more than once. What the heck is going on? No media covers this debacle.

    • Owen Courrèges

      QuinesSomos,

      It’s a bit off-topic, but I’ll respond:

      City government is incompetent.

      Landrieu is an empty suit.

      The City failed to negotiate proper terms in the contract to replace the ties in the streetcar lines and the lines for the streetlights. Thus, the contractor is still getting paid well for finishing way behind schedule. The ordinary excuse is that there were various issues with the contractor, work shut down for a while, blah blah blah, but in the end it’s because the City mishandled it.

      And now businesses down the streetcar line are suffering horribly. Meanwhile, Landrieu is planning on using his much vaunted political capital to jack up taxes to levels we can’t afford.

      There. We’re all caught up.

      • pfvayda

        I am with you on this one, Owen.

  • cmacfe

    Owen,

    If I remember correctly the bust of MLK was in direct answer to the hands reaching out art.

    • Owen Courrèges

      cmacfe,

      That sounds about right. Sadly, thoug it doesn’t look like we’ve learned too well from our mistakes.

  • Owen Courrèges

    Angie,

    Indeed. I’m not one of those who craps on all contemporary art. Some of it is quite good, and you have to approach everything with an open mind. That said, contemporary public art is a great deal more hit-or-miss.

    • Angie Peckham

      Here’s an idea for the gazebo ;)

      • susanng

        horrors, five people can sleep there …

  • Guest

    I think this picture helps show why the first thing I thought was “Beetlejuice.”

  • H. J. Bosworth JR.

    Owen,
    Thank you for another insightful commentary on our public environment! This one was a good “Emperor has no Clothes” observation.