Is the MLK statue pornography?

Coretta Scott King’s cousin, Seneca Scott, echoed the reaction of many who viewed the MLK statue recently exhibited in Boston:

“The mainstream media … was reporting on it like it was all beautiful, ’cause they were told they had to say that. But then when it came out, a little boy pointed out — ‘That’s a penis!’ and everyone was like, ‘Yo, that’s a big old dong, man.’”


Unfortunately, explanations offered by the sculptor, Hank Willis Thomas, did not help matters.

He posted this on his website:

When we recognize that all storytelling is an abstraction, all representation is an abstraction, hopefully it allows us to be open to more dynamic and complex forms of representation that don’t stick us to narrative that oversimplifies a person or their legacy, and I think this work really tries to get to the heart of that.

This comment blurs the reasonable distinction between figurative and non-figurative art I drew in my American Thinker article here and muddies the waters with vague jargon typical of much that passes for art criticism these days.

Too bad because the controversy could easily have been avoided. It’s not too late. Bear with me.

A while ago, well before even thinking about making sculpture, I was about to enter a Tower Records store in Washington D.C. when I spotted an interesting artwork across the street.

Rising some thirty feet, the structure was built from metal railings painted black. The artist may have been identified but I don’t recall the name.

The structure was a three-dimensional lattice, consisting mostly of what I later learned was called negative space. Views differed in the degrees of arc apart as I walked around it.

But, I wondered, was there a viewing angle that the sculptor preferred? If so, what was it? Where should I stand to grasp the sculpture’s meaning?

Lacking answers, I walked back across the street to add to my record collection.

As Plato observed long ago, one’s perception of an object, any object, depends on one’s position with respect to it. This is the relativity of vision. Obvious, isn’t it?

The relativity of vision is usually no cause for alarm because changing one’s position relative to ordinary objects does not result in inconsistent experiences.

A chair looks like a chair no matter what the viewing angle.

It is helpful to think of objects generally as collections of viewing angles. In philosophy, this theory is known as Phenomenalism and was defended by Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753).

It is helpful to think of the MLK statue—any statue—also as a collection of viewing angles, each potentially suggesting its own unique interpretation.[1]

For figurative sculptures, viewing angles any degrees of arc apart will form a consistent set, likewise their interpretation. Figurative sculptures and chairs are alike in this respect.

Now, it is true that several viewing angles of the MLK statue do indeed suggest the interpretation I proposed earlier, “the power of love.”

This is probably the preferred viewing angle the sculptor had in mind.

That interpretation vanishes, however, when the viewing angle is changed significantly. Have a look at photos of the MLK sculpture in Google Images and you’ll see what I mean.

The key point is that the sculptor has no control whatever over which viewing angle will be chosen once the work is on public display. This must be taken into account during composition.

Because it wasn’t, some viewing angles of the MLK statue turned out to suggest a sexual interpretation that Seneca Scott and many others at the exhibit found inappropriate.

The model used to built the statue can be seen on the artist’s website. The potentially embarrassing interpretation is already evident, yet it was missed, and the casting went ahead.

It’s not too late to change the composition. Having been involved in bronze casting myself, I realize the process is expensive and time-consuming.

What’s the alternative? Blocking access to viewing angles that suggest inappropriate interpretations is not an option in public exhibits.

A frequent contributor to American Thinker, Arnold Cusmariu retired from the Intelligence Community in 2010, where he worked as an analyst, analytic methodologist and analytic tradecraft instructor.  His book Logic for Kids is forthcoming from Jenny Stanford Publishing this summer.  Also a sculptor, Cusmariu's publications explaining his working aesthetic are available at 

[1] I have applied this idea in a series of sculptures titled Counterpoint, currently at #26. The following articles expand on this issue. PDF files are available online and contain photos.

“The Structure of an Aesthetic Revolution.” Journal of Visual Arts Practice 8.3 (2009), 163-179.

“The Perils of Aphrodite: A New Take on Star Theory.”  Film International 13.3 (2015), 97-116.

“Baudelaire’s Critique of Sculpture.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 49.3 (2015), 96-124.

“Toward an Epistemology of Art.” Symposion 3.1 (2016), 37-64.

“The Prometheus Challenge.” Symposion 4.1 (2017), 17-47.

“The Prometheus Challenge Redux.” Symposion, 4.2 (2017), 175-209.

“Art and Turing Machines,” Symposion (2023), forthcoming.

Image: Screen shot from PBS video, via YouTube

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