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Martin Luther King


by Charlie Finch
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Way back in the 1984 Presidential contest, I was one of Senator Gary Hart's field coordinators, and, as it should be, a number of my assistants turned out a lot better than I did. That group includes current New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Brookings Institution urban scholar Bruce Katz, and Charlie King, candidate for lieutenant governor during Andrew Cuomo's initial failed gubernatorial run, and then director of the Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network.

On the campaign, we used to call Charlie "Doc," because his last name was "King" and because this was the nickname that Dr. Martin Luther King's close associates, such as Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy, bestowed on their boss. Our choice of that moniker was also indicative of the relaxed soulfulness which Charlie King shared with his namesake, who, it must never be forgotten, was assassinated at the very tender age of 39.

Dr. King’s sense of command and his radical, courageous purpose has always made him a far older visage in the images that survive him, and this might explain why there are shockingly few art world tributes to him, from African American and non-African American artists alike. I just Googled the name of artist Rashid Johnson with Dr. King's name, for example, and came up with info on Rashid’s current show at Hauser & Wirth in NYC -- which the internet says merges fight promoter Don King and his famous electrified hair with “black yoga” (not to single out Rashid).

The most frequent online art references related to Dr. King are confined to the wonderful idea of a "Martin Luther King" coloring book, which, at first thought, might just be Duke Ellington's famous suite Black, Brown and Beige, but, when given up to the rainbow crayons of kindergarten kids, might approximate Glenn Ligon's colorful drag portrait of Malcolm X. Of course, one could argue that contemporary news photos of Dr. King (including the ones of a forgotten assassination attempt on him in Harlem by a mentally ill woman) are all that we need, yet Andy Warhol never painted him (he did the race riots though); nor has Elizabeth Peyton.

This is odd, since Martin Luther King is the most formidable, handsome and compelling subject in American history, one who should be explored by fine artists everywhere and not surrendered to the clumsy Sinocentric mistake of a statue in Washington, D.C. This is due to the fact that America was never comfortable enough to really appreciate the man King with the warmth of those who called him, to his face, "Doc."

That includes President Obama, one of whose friends, in Jodi Kantor's new book The Obamas (as quoted in David Remnick's splendid review of same in the current New Yorker), remarks that "you will never hear what it's like to be the first black President of the United States from the first black President of the United States."

The literary and artistic projection onto other victims of the gun, such as John and Robert Kennedy, have so far been denied Dr. King, whose unique secret was the he always transcended race during his lifetime -- not just via posterity -- and paid for that with his life.

It would be nice to see a man, memorialized in typically perverse American fashion on a cold day in January, which is mostly ignored, rather than a hot day in July, become the hottest subject among artists. "Doc," and all the other "docs," would smile.

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).