Somewhere in Chicago, a public sculpture installment--composed of sixteen "waves" of concrete, each weighing over a thousand pounds--will be displaced to "make room for new landscaping. This short Tribune piece describes the city council's struggle to find new homes for the waves, which cost a hefty $400,000 collectively. The Des Plaines aldermen, some of whom "oppose the waves as public art" and are loathe to stomach the financial loss, are even more hesitant to stomach placing the sculptures in their own backyards. One volunteers that he has a summer home.
As a liberal, philosophically-inclined sort, it's safe to say that my knee-jerk reaction is to immediately defend the freedom of artistic expression and the importance of proliferating culture. But the pervasiveness and contentious nature of the issue demands more attention.
While "The Malignant Object: Thoughts on Public Sculpture," by Douglas Stalker and Clark Glymour, was printed in Art and Society in the 80's, the article poses a pragmatic, self-reflexively "philistine" argument that's so simple, it's timeless: Public art is for the people, but the people don't like public art, so public art should be suppressed." The "people's" distaste, argue Stalker and Glymour, is quantifiable; we frequently come across petitions, assemblies, litigations, etc. that oppose such works. "Claes' Oldenburg's 'Lipstick' was so thoroughly defaced at Yale," they recall, "the sculptor retrieved it." The trend continues: The Des Plaines aldermen can't even dump such art on people for free.
Glymour and Stalker examine the possible defenses for public sculptures--moral and artistic worth, instructive value, the stimulation of intellectual discourse, economic value, and the eventual development of tolerance--and attempt to debunk each of them. The "intellectual lessons" conveyed by such art, they write, are not only trivial in comparison to real moral/social/academic ideas, but also rarely transmitted to the masses. After all, only a "small coterie of aesthetes" walks away from a Richard Serra installment thinking "Wow--his engagement with material! His creation and manipulation of space!"
I can't really speak to whether or not public art is economically valuable, and tolerance is indeed a lame defense, but the question of whether or not such works a. present intellectually compelling ideas and b. successfully communicate them is an interesting one. As an example, Glymour and Stalker point to Oldenberg's "Batcolumn," which consists of a column of glass boxes filled with mundane objects. According to the authors, the message--the idea that the frivolous underlies the self-important--is not only lost to most spectators, but also a "patently trivial thought...would not a small sign have been in better taste?"
This part of their argument rings completely and obviously false to me; asking whether or not a "small sign" would suffice is tantamount to asking why and whether we need art at all. The more compelling claim, I believe, is the problematic idea that the people fails to apprehend the meaning of public art; as someone who, despite having taken courses in the history and philosophy of art, still struggles to comprehend much of what she sees while walking to class, this strikes me as a pressing question.
If Glymour and Stalker are right on this count (and I think they are), the most patent explanation is that public art's inscrutability arises in a lack of public education. The majority of passerby don't understand such pieces because there is a dearth of instructive, lucid, and accessible information about their meaning: When was the last time you saw high-quality wall-text outdoors? If governments and institutions are willing to spend $400,000 on public art, they can spare another chunk of change on expository material that's both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually approachable. And the media, when covering such issues in papers like the Tribune, should deign to attribute the works and give some indication of their meaning.