In the week since The Embrace monument to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King was unveiled on Boston Common, there's been plenty of discussion about it. But cutting through all the noise, how does the monument stand on its own as a piece of public art?

To find out, I spoke with a critic, an artist and GBH News’ own arts and culture reporter.

Sebastian Smee, a Boston-based critic with The Washington Post, reviewed it this week.

"I saw a sculpture that was done in the language of what you might call realism, or figurative realism," Smee said. "It's a realistic depiction of human bodies — enlarged, obviously. But I think for me, it runs into trouble because it's leaving out parts of those bodies. It's just sort of trying to turn one language into another language in a fairly awkward kind of way. And I think that's part of why some people are finding it a bit ugly, or distorted in a way that makes them uncomfortable."

Smee said he did not seek out other criticism of the piece before he wrote his own review.

"Public sculpture that creates a stir, that's in a very public place, is often mocked in this way," he said. "It's almost built into the nature of public sculpture, that it's going to divide opinion, and people are going to be very open about it. Because they're aware that it's been planned for a long time, that it's expensive and that it's making a statement. And if they don't like the statement, or if they don't like the amount of money that was spent on it, they get upset. But I think this has had an especially ugly side, and I think that's unfortunate."

Feedback also came from people like comedian Leslie Jones, who guest-hosted “The Daily Show” and went in on The Embrace this week. Before launching into how much she disliked the sculpture, she looked directly into the camera and addressed the proverbial white audience: "You don't need to be saying [expletive] about this statue," she deadpanned. "You understand? Black hands only."

For me, that raised this question: With all the nuances of the conversations about the sculpture, there is part of it that imparts the white gaze. So, how does that figure into the conversation, from everyday people to art critics?

"She’s brilliant," Smee said of Jones. "I did sort of go, 'Yeah, okay. Ouch. Fair enough.' But, you know, it's a public sculpture. It's out there. He's an incredibly important national and international figure, Martin Luther King Jr. Coretta Scott King, also an incredibly important person. And the sculpture was made to speak to everyone. I really believe that."

Artist Hank Willis Thomas and Embrace Boston had to meet high expectations, and expectations that are different from person to person. And as Smee writes in his column, the sculpture’s level of ambition is what makes people really care about it — and possibly makes it more vulnerable to being picked apart in the way that it has.

"I think the sculpture itself will settle down," Smee said. "People will be less animated about it. And, you know, it's there for the long term. And I commend Hank Willis Thomas and the people who approved it for going for something a little more ambitious than just a really conventional figurative sculpture."

Thaddeus Miles, a local photographer who attended the unveiling last Friday, said he's been perplexed by the response.

"I went to the unveiling, and the joy — the smiles on dreams fulfilled and the energy. And when it was unveiled, it was a beautiful structure to see," Miles said. "Now, I wasn't surprised that some people didn't like it. Because even myself, I was like, 'It's going to take a minute to get used to this. I need to go up and touch it.' I was sort of surprised by the vitriol that was being spoken out by people that weren't there, by people that haven't had the time to take a look at it, people who take certain angles of a photo and make something of it."

People naturally turn to humor as a way of dealing with things that are difficult or complex, and I suppose there was an element of that. But the memorial's existence in a city like Boston — with its reputation of being racist to the rest of the country, but that also has a robust Black population — could make the jokes hurtful.

"I don't disagree with people's opinion of the statue, of the work that could be done. I think people are just not educated enough around what the process was," Miles said. "I've talked to elders in the community that love it, that have told me: young people don't understand that the movement was about love, that this statue is about love, that it wasn't necessarily about the Kings. And then I've heard from young people that have kids that are like, 'Why is a world outside of Boston — and those inside of Boston — being so destructive and warping the minds of our younger people and how they see it?'

"And we are asking people, in order to change this systemic racism that we've dealt with, for people to think outside of the box and for people to be bold," Miles said. "Why can't Hank Willis Thomas think outside of the box and be bold without us having a lot of excess criticism around how he saw the Kings, how he saw their love, how he was raised by his grandmother and looked at her hands, how Bill Withers' song, 'Grandma's Hands,' what that meant to him?"

Part of bringing this monument to the Common, too, was about creating space for Black Bostonians.

"People have to be able to talk about the pain that this is causing for many; the feeling of being left out in the decision-making process for some; the hopes and dreams of others that thought about it in a different way. I think those discussions have to be had," Miles said. "And I think that's really, when I start to think about The Embrace and the statue in itself, that we protect it in a way of the honesty of which was built, in the legacy of which it was built."

Different schools of thought for Embrace criticisms

James Bennett II on Morning Edition | Jan. 20, 2023

Much of the criticism could be divided into a few schools, said James Bennett II, GBH’s arts and culture reporter. Academically styled concerns like Smee’s say the sculpture doesn’t work well because it’s executed in a realist language, even though it’s not a realist sculpture. There’s the criticism from those like Leslie Jones, too.

“There’s the Leslie Jones criticism that you just heard on ‘The Daily Show,’ there’s the smattering of tweets about how it might depict a certain intimate act,” Bennett said.

There was also a criticism, made by Washington Post Columnist Karen Attiah, that the sculpture essentially reduced the Kings into disembodied limbs.

“That there’s a kind of violence there, and there’s not a way to experience them in their actual corporeal fullness,” Bennett said. “I don’t necessarily agree with that criticism, but I do understand where she’s coming from.”

Lastly, there are the people who look at the sculpture, absent a massive plaque or name tag, and wonder: What are we actually looking at?

“Here’s the thing, though: By virtue of it being public art and there being a conversation, in my opinion, it’s like: you know it’s MLK now,” Bennett said. “There’s a degree of good faith that has to be taken with an argument like that, because we know what we’re talking about.”

Bennett recalled a sculpture by Constantin Brancusi called “Bird in Space,” an elongated column that widens in the middle, balancing on a small pedestal. It’s a work meant to evoke the movement of birds in flight rather than their literal form.

But he said online criticism of the sculpture is incomplete.

“It’s a three-dimensional sculpture, and we’re kind of playing around with that proverbial ‘feeling the elephant’ — everyone's feeling or seeing a different part of it and can’t really come to terms on what it is,” Bennett said. “A lot of the criticism I feel that I did read was from sharing one single two-dimensional picture, and a lot of folks that were talking about it didn’t actually go and see it for themselves. A lot of people that were talking about it maybe did not understand the connection that the Kings had with the city of Boston, and the Blackness therein.”

Bennett said he hoped the piece would spur more conversation about the practicalities of creating public art.

“One thing that I did like seeing was someone who was like ... ‘How come you're not making sculptures and paintings that are hyper-realist, in a Neoclassical or Romantic style,’” he said. “And it's like, ‘Well, how come you’re not putting up a full-time salary for these artists, giving them the room, giving them the board, so they have nothing to focus on but painting — and but one sculpture — for a period of three years?’ So I think this really opened up a discussion into how art gets made in a contemporary setting.”

GBH News’ Jeremy Siegel and Gal Tziperman Lotan contributed to this article.