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After triumphal unveiling, ‘The Embrace’ must stand on its own

Love it or hate it, the memorial is now a permanent part of Boston’s landscape. But our engagement with it will continue to evolve.

Several views of "The Embrace," on Boston Common.Craig F. Walker, John Tlumacki and Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Has Boston ever held an unveiling party quite like it did last Friday for “The Embrace,” artist Hank Willis Thomas’s massive bronze memorial on the Common to Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King?

Politicians lined up to sing the sculpture’s praises. Members of the King family were on hand to give it their blessing. Local news lavished it with attention, producing television specials, live broadcasts from the ceremony, and numerous glowing articles.

What a difference a few days makes: The sculpture, based on a photograph of the Kings after he won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, has quickly become an object of derision online, as critics compare its disembodied tangle of arms to less exalted body parts.

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In other words, “The Embrace,” like many memorials before it, is off to a rocky start — an occupational hazard for public art, which often serves as a battleground these days for the stories we tell about ourselves.

“There have always been people unhappy with new monuments,” said Erin L. Thompson, author of the book “Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments.”

But “time plays a big role in an unpredictable way,” she continued. “You can come to think about the monument and decide that you actually like it, and then sometimes you’ll decide, no, it actually is a bad work of art.”

So the question becomes: How will “The Embrace,” or at least our regard for it, evolve?

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, now among the most popular installations on the National Mall, was sharply criticized for its lack of patriotism when it opened in 1982. Closer to home, the Boston Art Commission voted unanimously in 2020 to remove “Emancipation Group,” finding that the 19th-century sculpture depicting Abraham Lincoln standing above a kneeling Black man, perpetuated “harmful prejudices” and obscured “the role of Black Americans in shaping the nation’s freedoms.”

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But if earlier memorials ignited robust public debates, discussion around “The Embrace” has had people speaking past one another: Supporters approach it with reverence; critics, some anonymous, troll it.

“A masturbatory metal homage,” is how Seneca Scott, a cousin of Scott King, described it in Compact magazine.

“Saturday Night Live” alum Leslie Jones, appearing as a guest host on “The Daily Show,” compared it to a certain sex act: “I know Dr. King went down in history,” she quipped, “but this is not how you show it.”

Thomas, who designed “The Embrace” with the MASS Design Group, dismissed many of the work’s online critics.

“I’m very careful not to confuse people’s lived experience with what is happening on the Internet,” Thomas told the Globe Thursday. “They’re looking at pictures online and responding to them as one does.”

But given the sculpture’s subject matter — 20th-century civil rights royalty — discussion has been muted in some quarters.

“I think a lot of people who might not care for the design of the memorial are hesitant to say anything,” said Michele Bogart, a public art expert and professor emeritus at Stony Brook University in New York. “Given the climate, there’s a good deal of hesitancy to say anything negative about social justice endeavors.”

Or, as Jones put it in her “Daily Show” bit: “White people, you don’t need to be saying [anything] about this statue, you understand?”

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But other critics have begun to emerge, some claiming that the sculptural form, emphasizing the Kings’ romantic love, glosses over some of the more radical ideas that made the slain civil rights leader such a polarizing figure in his lifetime.

“King was fighting against the three evils: racism, poverty, and war,” said David Harris, former managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. Calling the work “problematic,” he added, “there’s something about this monument that reminds me of the softening of Martin Luther King’s [legacy of] radicalism.”

In response, Thomas said: “How can love not be radical? It’s the most powerful force in the universe.”

Marty Blatt, a retired public historian from Northeastern University, said the design perpetuates a decades-long effort “to deradicalize and decontextualize MLK and Coretta.”

“It really undermines the message of the Kings,” he said. “Yes, they were about love, but it was a combative, confrontational love” that catalyzed the civil rights movement.

Others have objected to the disembodied portrayal of the Black couple.

“Black Bostonians are not laughing; we are outraged, dissatisfied, and upset that this opportunity was squandered,” Rasheed Walters wrote in the Boston Herald. “We don’t see any statues depicting the severed arm of General George Washington brandishing a sword. So, why should we see statues of our African American heroes mutilated?”

But Thomas’s creation, chosen from a field of five finalists in 2019, was the most representational of the lot, a conceptual work with figurative elements.

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“I don’t think any artist expects that everyone is going to approach their work with the same perspective,” said Thomas. “Taking a more conceptual approach is going to get critiqued, and that’s totally important.”

Kara Elliott-Ortega, the city’s chief of arts and culture, said successful public art can “spark a dialogue on representation, public space, and how we depict history.”

“ ‘The Embrace’ does that,” she said in a statement. “Our hope is that the public spends time with this artwork and understands Boston’s place in civil rights history — from the Kings, to the local leaders commemorated on the plaza, to the next generation of activists who move us forward.”

Public opposition to monuments — whether documented or not — is as old as the art form itself, said Thompson, a professor of art crime at the City University of New York. She added that the current controversy is amplified because “The Embrace” is “a new form of public monument” that differs markedly from the triumphant figurative tributes that have reigned for millennia and dominate the Boston landscape.

Nearly “every monument that has moved away from that format of the heroic portrait has been controversial,” said Thompson, describing the fallout from Lin’s memorial. “And that’s great, because that’s what art should do: It should make us think about history and our surroundings and confuse us in order to get us to new places.”

Even so, some historians of public art question the value of permanent memorials — particularly those devoted to an individual. Not only do they fail to capture the person in full, but they often end up memorializing the same men over and over again: Lincoln, Washington, Columbus, even King.

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“I am a little skeptical about the value of memorials,” said Bogart, who like many in the field is a proponent of temporary public art. “Are we going to have those [same figures] in every city? What good does that do?”

Meanwhile, Imari Paris Jeffries, executive director of Embrace Boston, the organization behind the sculpture, said the current controversy is a sign of the sculpture’s success.

“Public art is subjective and will always come with controversy,” he said in a statement. “ ‘The Embrace’ would not be serving its purpose without this thought-provoking public discourse.”

Artist Steve Locke, who left Boston after a controversy over his proposed slavery memorial at Faneuil Hall, said he’s been dismayed by the vitriol expressed toward “The Embrace.”

“People are really, really angry about love,” he said, adding that he’d yet to see the work in person. “That love sustained the civil rights movement.”

Locke, who counts Thomas as a friend, added that the selection was a “public process,” and that none of the five final proposals treated the Kings figuratively.

“Whenever we talk about art, we’re talking about ourselves,” he said. “People are angry because it wasn’t what they wanted. They should start to think about what they want. The sculpture is making them think about that, and that’s one of the roles of art.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.