The Boston Embrace is Great, But Sorrowfully Misplaced
For me, Art is the restoration of order. It may discuss all sorts of terrible things, but there must be satisfaction at the end. A little bit of hunger, but also satisfaction. — Toni Morrison
By Rev. Kevin C. Peterson
I agree that The Embrace Memorial in Boston is good art. But it may not be “good public art.”
Good public art (as understood in the academy and among regular folks) is art that evokes both historical memory and challenges us related to 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.
Perhaps, The Embrace Memorial — unveiled with demonstrable zeal in Boston on the eve of Rev. Martin Luther King’s Birthday this month — makes too many assumptions about what ordinary people expect in public art and downplays the unique challenges public art might offer as a work of cultural spectacle?
Surely, if public art is intended to provoke introspection and civic desire about where we must direct ourselves within the context of democratic living, then such art should be accessible and resonate as belonging to people who wish to reflect upon its beauty and representational challenges.
Perhaps The Embrace Memorial unfairly privileges the quasi-avante garde artistic sensibilities of dubious European modernism and a sort of Continental post-structural form of aesthetic production that eludes most of us because of its dense myopic content and untenable exclusivity.
I do not object to The Embrace Memorial. No one should, because on a certain level the artwork is so stellar: On the merits of what it seeks as a modernist endeavor, no one can blame the artist for presenting an underwhelming work. No one can accuse the sculptor of failing to employ the discrete vocabularies that constitute the contemporary dialogue about the epistemic crisis pertaining to the Enlightenment and the World Wars of the last century. And no one can make the claims that the artist was derelict in mimicking the angst-ridden and existentially-burdened creative modes of expression that unfortunately surfaced in American as derivative of Western cultural continental catastrophe.
Again, The Embrace Memorial is good art. It is simply out of place.
People who take art seriously, will appreciate The Embrace for its complexity and readily understand its textual sources as having powerful connections to a deconstructionist’s oeuvre — it’s deliberative opaqueness signifies deep private and subjective — maybe even pessimistic — intentions, depending on the audience. To be sure, The Embrace is a charismatic piece of exceptional aesthetic rendition.
We wonder, however, if The Embrace Memorial achieves the goals of good public art: that ability to command, in the common space, a public gaze while demanding communal change. Good public art does this precisely without unnecessary distraction. Good public art takes the public for what it is at the present moment and seeks to transform it carefully without tricks or manipulation or reference to esoteric cant.
Perhaps the commitments made by the artist who rendered the memorial (and the Embrace Committee) display too little empathy toward the viable common expectations that are, otherwise, anticipated in “good’’ public art in common spaces. Ordinary people who view public art seek first to grasp its meaning. Second, they look for its prophetic content — the abilities of the art to predict what we might mean about democracy, mutual regard and the promise and pitfalls of community. Good public art is meant to produce the kinds of communities that sufficiently summon, as Abraham Lincoln would say, “the better angels of our nature.”
In ways, both large and small, good public art causes us to be participants in ever founding and building upon friendships, bolstering fragile and misunderstood relationships and always pursuing a new and more robust democracy.
The high-minded commitments the so-called elite in Boston possess about public art often lack clear historical resonance, hence they fail to call us toward corporate social redemption and re-imagining. As such, The Embrace Memorial as public art, is a woefully deconstructed public artifact and ahistorical. And this is why The Embrace Memorial can be argued about as being too “high culture” and alienating and undemocratic. And it is why this monument can be said described as distracting, at best, or inaccessible, at worst.
Perhaps, the reason why so many black folks in Boston consider The Embrace Memorial appalling is because it is exceedingly opaque and far removed from expectations common people in Boston might want to intellectually and culturally countenance. 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 Memorial represented and ready opportunity to be seen. The memorial was anticipated by blacks because it represented a chance to avoid the erasure they have experienced since Africans arrived in Boston as slaves near Faneuil Hall. As many black folks have said online, The Embrace Memorial is insulting in ways that the Kings are depicted as decapitated — their visage and bodies reduced to anatomical anonymity. The memorial is headless and the decapitation of the Kings is determinative of the aesthetic disenchantment and violence the work presents publicly as a modernist project. The vision and grammar of disenchantment the memorial offers represents a brand of secularism the Kings, themselves, would reject out of hand.
Putting all of this differently, public art, properly expressed, should not be merely the domain of curated existential jargon, where the artist takes liberty at advancing singular and personal subjectivity. Those who trade in the production of public art must be generous enough to connect with the minds and spirits whom 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. All “good public art” eschews what may be called solipsistic showboating, and embraces the possibilities of the “publics.” 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.
Still, The Embrace is a wonder to behold, indeed.
But, It might be best physically sited at a venue 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. Room may exist on the grounds at Boston’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Or it might be better sited on the grounds of M.I.T., across the Charles River, where it would not be out of place in a community where concocted high concepts and cerebral theoretical propositions are relished ad infinitum with appropriate glee.
Maybe we will someday all appropriate a collective understanding of what The Embrace Memorial means. For now, a memorial that embraces the fullest images of the King’s in Boston and across America remains elusive.
Rev. Kevin Peterson is the founder of the New Democracy Coalition and an affiliate faculty member at Boston University’s Center for Anti-Racist Research.