Made in China
Martin Luther King Memorial
Categories: Commentary

Martin Luther King deserved a memorial on the Mall. Unfortunately from my perspective it also has become a symbol for the plight of the American stone carver. Our industry has been taking a beating by the Chinese since they were given “Most Favored Nation” trading status by the elder Bush and by the “Free Trade” agreements leveraged in during the Clinton administration. The net result has been that a huge percentage of the American industrial base has been given wholesale to a Communist totalitarian state. Ponder that for a moment.

For the American stone industry, this has meant a staggering decline in production. Believe it or not, Chinese labor is so cheap that you can take a ten ton block of stone from the quarry here, ship it to China, have it sawed to size, finished and shipped back to your door step for less money than it would cost for the mill next to the quarry to do the same work. Cheap and poorly crafted memorials from China are about 80% of what you see in the show rooms of the monument dealers here in this country. The Chinese are even offering to bid on new construction projects with prices that cannot be competed against. You can imagine the quality delivered by this long distance production.

The reader might break in here and say “what’s wrong with competition?” and they would have a point, except for the notion that “free trade” ought to be “fair trade”. Every time I post an image of my work on line I run the risk of finding it on a Chinese web site the next day with a price tag on it that I cannot match. The Chinese knock-off is a fact of life for many American industries and ours is no exception. Secondly, the Chinese will not let their currency float freely in the international money market. It is artificially kept low and we suffer for it. Thirdly, if the reader finds the time, Google up videos of Chinese stone carving and notice the conditions the rank and file stone workers over there work in. The granite mills are a horror show that would never be allowed here in the US. Looking through the clouds of granite dust you can see the outlines of men who will never reach their thirty-fifth birthday after dying from silicosis. We put a lot on money into our production to prevent that sort of thing.

I’ve just scratched the surface here in my description but I believe you get the point. Let’s step back to my analogy about the MLK memorial and what it means to this stone carver.

When it came to producing the MLK memorial, the committee responsible for it completely ignored the American industry. Later they were shamed into throwing us a few crumbs after the howls of outrage. But not before the execution of the statue was farmed out to the Chinese. This was no accident, and the economics of the situation contributed greatly to it. (Sound familiar?) Funding was tight and, smelling an opportunity, the Chinese lobbied hard and sweetened the deal, and the offer was too good to be refused. That offer included the caveat that a Chinese sculptor would do the work. A couple of voices from the Afro American sculptural community complained about how inappropriate this was and asked that an American sculptor be hired, but they had no influence with the committee. It was just sooooo much cheaper to outsource it. So away it went.

I don’t begrudge the Chinese sculptor his struggle to survive in this world, and the man who was chosen is a master at his craft. However when you look at the result you see the interpretation of Dr. King through the eye of  a man who never lived in our country during  Dr. Kings struggle and it shows in the finished statue. In his country the heroic figures like those he has done before are those men who historically had kept their booted foot on the neck of the common man, and his rendition of King looks a lot like one of the characters he is familiar with.

Just to add a little salt to the wound, the King memorial architect put out a statement after the fact that he assumed that he would not find the skill sets to do the job in the American industry. That statement to me and my brethren is an insult of such profound magnitude that it almost takes the breath away.  Five minutes on the internet, especially on the Stone Carvers Guild website and they would have found the expertise they needed for anything they wanted in stone.

I think that rather than leaving the statue of Dr. King on the mall, a more appropriate home for it would be Teinniman Square. There the citizens of China could look upon the visage of a man who represented the same desire for human rights that so many Chinese died for on that spot more than a decade ago. Until then it can stand as a flawed memorial to Dr. King and a tombstone for the American stone carver.

Tags: American Stone Carving, Chinese Stone Carving, Martin Luther King Memorial, Martin Luther King Memorial controversy, MLK Memorial, MLK Memorial controversy, Public Art

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