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An Ugly Embrace

The Embrace Statue
Boston, MA - January 12: Embrace, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial sculpture at Boston Common. (Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Early in 2023 in Boston Common, on the very spot now called Freedom Plaza, where Martin Luther King Jr. made an impassioned speech on April 23, 1965, was unveiled The Embrace, a huge sculpture by the Brooklyn-based conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, inspired, according to its creator, by a photograph of King embracing his wife, Coretta Scott King, when the news broke of King's being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

This enormous work features four arms with hands: two, clearly of a male, with one elbow on the ground, have jacket-sleeves with protruding shirt-cuffs, and two, equally obviously female, are bare, with both elbows resting on the ground, so the whole 65,000-pound bronze composition rests on three elbows, a variation on the tripod theme. Disconcertingly, however, the sleeved arms end in shoulders joined together, yet there are no necks or heads. The hands are beautifully modeled, and the arms of the female (which support the clothed male shoulders) incorporate a bracelet and a ring on one finger. This massive, ingenious composition cost something in the region of $10 million, and was cast from many smaller pieces by the Walla Walla Foundry. It has attracted, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag of criticisms.


The sculpture is intended to celebrate the hug the Kings gave each other as shown in the 1964 photograph, hence its title, The Embrace. But does it actually work on that level? The trouble with abstraction is that if one abstracts excessively, there’s not much left, and an intertwining of disembodied arms, clothed or otherwise, induces a sense of deep unease, almost of creepiness, for what emerges is something almost monstrous, verging on the arachnidan, repulsive, off-putting, ugly, far-removed from any warm, humane, loving embrace. Use of the word "ugly," of course, immediately induces shrieks from relativists, but, as Henry Hope Reed sagely observed, art that claimed for itself "originality, the abstract false progress, fear of the past…packaged in a wrapping called Modern...," cut off from its ancient heritage, has, in the eloquent words of Catesby Leigh, "effectively dismembered itself." And here, in The Embrace, we have a very unsettling example of dismemberment, and in that lies the essence of a huge problem. 

One of the aims of America's Founders was to build a great democratic society to achieve the good life for all. In its "visual form," as Reed put it, that goal was encapsulated in "the achievement of the classical image in a free world." For that reason, America embraced what Thomas Jefferson called "Roman taste, genius, and magnificence." The jettisoning of all that in favor of an imported aberration, the deformed offspring of those Germans demanding the tabula rasa, the brutal rejection of everything from the past, was a national catastrophe. Sculpture, including commemorative works, as well as architecture, town planning, and various branches of the creative arts, all fell victim to iconoclasm, destruction, falsehoods, bogus arguments, and nihilism.

There was a time when sculpture was an integral part of architecture: think of those figures in Gothic cathedral facades; those standing as "weepers" in niches, or lying, in peaceful repose, on tomb-chests; or embellishing classical buildings as essential parts of the architecture (not stuck on as afterthoughts, disguised as "ironmongery" in bills of quantities). Public memorials commemorating individuals, be they national heroes or significant figures in science or the arts, often incorporated representations of human figures, shown whole, as busts, or in relief. In the past, sculpture, as part of architecture, or standing alone, was full of meaning, and therefore worked, imparting its essence to the beholder, and enhancing its settings. Take the superbly crafted public sculptures of notable Scots, for example, all of which work well in terms of scale, impact, and civic art. Recent examples include noble, classically-inspired figures on pedestals: of David Hume and James Clerk Maxwell in Edinburgh, and John Witherspoon at Princeton, N.J., all three by Alexander Stoddart, sculptor in ordinary in Scotland. Stoddart’s creations commemorating historical figures are firmly within the classical tradition, and are satisfying as objects within the urban fabric.

Does The Embrace really work, therefore, as a monument? It has been crudely abused, parts of it likened to an outsize male member, or even a turd, but that is unfair: its failure lies far deeper than that. One problem is the composition of unnerving disembodied arms ending in shoulders above which rise no necks, and therefore no heads, so the overall effect is deeply disturbing for reasons indicated above. But the main problem is modernism itself, in which failure is the norm rather than an exception, and in which lies a pathological stylistic instability. By jettisoning history, allusion, the past, and the vast, infinitely adaptable language of tradition, especially the classical tradition, modernism, from its very beginnings, has been impoverished in every possible way, incapable of conveying meaning, and essentially nihilistic in whatever content it might have pretended to possess. Modernism became the medium by which anything could be justified and passed off as "art," no matter how empty, how uncouth, how meaningless, how badly crafted, how ugly, and how massive a failure it actually was, a perfect example of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

To judge from the modeling of the hands and arms of The Embrace, it would seem that the artist might be capable of creating a sculpture of great nobility, stature, beauty, and meaning, that would enhance its setting, were he to immerse himself in that great classical tradition that was the glory of American art and architecture before the bacillus of modernism, introduced by the Bauhausler and their American admirers (among them the Hitler-admiring Philip Cortelyou Johnson), ruined everything, a process Sibyl Moholy-Nagy (née Pietzsch) correctly called "Hitler’s Revenge."

Willis Thomas’s The Embrace, however, would seem to fall somewhat short, both as a work of civic art and as a memorial, or even as a celebration of human love and endeavor, while its alleged cost might suggest excess to some. 

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.