Thursday, April 19, 2007

enemies of the people

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.


i know i'm whatever said...

Slovenian cokehead slob and self-aggrandizer Slavoj Zizek made an interesting point about this at a talk in NYC a few months ago: if anything, the traditional narrative about Soviet avant garde art being repressed by Stalinism gets it all wrong. If any art was popular with the soviet people, it was precisely the much-maligned "Socialist Realism" --whereas the abstract movements were "tyrannical" in attempting to impose their tastes on an uninterested populace.

mr. wrongway said...

what's with the irrepressible urge to use obnoxious colors? Ugly, glaring, look-at-my-importance, monstrosities shouldn't keep getting public dollars. That said i really like some public art... monuments always seem to end up tasteful, statues that kids can play on are fun, fountains are great...there are kinds of public art that people can enjoy without digesting a particular meaning. (but a few plaques would be nice) Sculptors should compare notes with architects.

Herman Furry Paws said...

If you have a problem with Laguna Beach, you have a problem with us.

Matt said...

I love the idea of government not only paying for public art, but for complementary materials that help provide context. But the usual "expository" tack seems to further the larger problem of the taxpaying public's indifferent-to-hostile relationship with art. This next part's going to sound familiar: by and large, the American public has been trained that Art is something done and appreciated by a small number of very smart people, and normal folks need the professor to explain what it's about, or they have no hope of getting it. It's a top-down model of art production and appreciation that at the same time it "educates," ends up reinforcing the idea of an elite who "get it" and the masses who do not.

Once again, and with feeling: CAN WE PLEASE STOP BEING SO WORRIED ABOUT "GETTING" ART? Stalker and Glymour sound like real fun-hating assholes who miss the point entirely, but they're not alone in thinking that EYES + ART = MESSAGE. S&G say, since there's no message being communicated, something's wrong with the equation; since this is a democracy and the people can't be wrong, it must be the art. So let's get better art, or no wait, let's just cut straight to a message and skip that expensive and confusing art thing altogether. Oof. ERC, you also agree that this reaction isn't going, but as a fellow member of the democracy-hating elite, you figure the eyes are probably the insufficient ingredient.

What if the equation were actually EYES + ART = EXPERIENCE? Or for that matter, EYES + ART = ART? In other words, instead of telling people what the artist meant and why the piece is $400,000 worth of important, what if the government gave the public a set of questions and suggestions for experiencing the art? The trouble with explaining "what is it?" to Nancy Nonplussed-Taxpayer is that, for a whole lot of art, "it" is something that is actively fucking with her. The piece of art isn't a billboard to tell her to buy or do anything, it's a deliberate distraction from her day specifically designed to disturb the rhythm of life around it. Suggesting interesting ways to look at it--in relation to its surroundings, how it's put together, from certain angles, what does the surface remind one of, etc.--might get people like Nancy to welcome this interruption. If we can allay her suspicions of a) someone tricking her with emperor's new clothes nonsense and b) her not seeing what she's "supposed to" see, we might allow her to relax her defenses and actually trust herself to just see the thing, and to take pleasure in seeing.

The same thing can and should be said for street art. Besides the government clearing a plaza and plunking a Calder down, with all This Is Official Sanctioned Art solemnity, nearly every community has people actively working over public spaces (and yes, I'm considering what everyone can see a "public space" even if it's private property) to add these interrupting art moments to the day. I'm guessing it's no coincidence that a mainstream population which dismisses street art as confusing, threatening, destructive vandalism doesn't know what to do when confronted with official art that demands its attention and participation.

mr. wrongway said...

hey, seriously erc, why do you detest laguna beach??? It's problematic.

Andrew said...

Supplementary information might make a bit of a difference, but I doubt that it would convert all that many people. One would be in a similar situation if a work of serial music or sound poetry had the same presence as one of these sculptures; a minority of people would find them appealing from the beginning, a few might be persuaded that there was some interest in them, and the majority would continue to find them distracting and inaccessible. I think that this is very slowly changing (in a certain way I remain a kind of heretical modernist), but it can be accelerated only a little by efforts at general education.