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Bland Art in Every Pot | The Nation

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Bland Art in Every Pot

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Examples of this effort include a proposed Jenny Holzer installation of fourteen granite benches outside a federal courthouse in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1995. Holzer had planned to incise a series of aphorisms or "truisms" on these benches, which drew the objections of a resident federal judge who crossed out a number of the proposed sayings. Among the truisms deleted were: "Men don't protect you anymore," "A man can't know what it's like to be a mother," "In some instances it's better to die than to continue," "Murder has a sexual side," "Romantic love was invented to manipulate women" and "Fathers often use too much force." In place of those deletions were substituted remarks such as "A positive attitude makes all the difference in the world," "It's better to be a good person than a famous person," "Solitude is enriching," "Routine is a link with the past" and "Being alone with yourself is increasingly unpopular." The Allentown experience was not a novelty; similar content changes have been made in public pieces commissioned for courthouses in Sacramento and Kansas City, Missouri.

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Daniel Grant
Daniel Grant is the author of The Fine Artist's Career Guide, The Artist's Resource Handbook and The Business of Being...

"Judges have a history of being involved in courthouse art, and they don't want to seemingly place an official stamp on something that is questionable," said Steven Tepper, associate director at Princeton University's Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies and the author of a 1999 study on how the public responds to public art commissioned by the GSA. "The judges didn't want some Jenny Holzer remark being used by an attorney in a trial as part of a defense." Call it the blanding-down of the art world, but for Holzer, whose income principally derives from public commissions, there was little choice but to accede. In order to get a Holzer public art piece, then, one ends up with a second-rate object--weighed against the possibility of a perpetrator winning acquittal based on art!

Community editing of an artist's design for another Kansas City public art piece occurred in 1994 when muralist Richard Haas was asked by a group of Native Americans to change several American Indian figures from a kneeling position to a more dignified stance, and another group recommended that more European settlers be included. Haas acceded to both requests for his painting, titled Justice and the Prairie; like the Holzer commissions, it was eventually installed without controversy. Artists may find that the absence of a public outcry over their work comes at a high price. "I have to make a decision when these kinds of requests come in," Haas said. "Do I make the change or not? I have to be convinced that this is what I want, that it doesn't take away from the integrity of the piece. How can I satisfy this group or that without compromising the piece?" In the end, Haas noted, "I had to make compromises. I was forced to do it. When criticism comes from the community rather than from an individual sponsor or a panel of art judges, it's much more serious, if not necessarily more valid. Criticism will land in the press, and the press can take it and warp it, and you've got a battle on your hands that you know you can't win. When there is an overwhelming community reaction to your work, you know you're in trouble. In the post-Tilted Arc world, artists have gone to safer shores; more cutting-edge art is out."

Controversy may take a variety of forms, with government officials demanding a work's removal being the extreme. In 1998 the Carlsbad, California, City Council voted to remove (and thereby destroy) a "functional" artwork by Andrea Blum that had been commissioned in 1987 by the city's public art commission. The work, which consisted of a reflecting pool, concrete benches, some landscaping and metal barriers along a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, had generated a significant outcry from residents, shopkeepers and political figures. "Carlsbad is an ultraconservative town, and people are particular about their ocean views," an official of the public art commission noted. In 1992 the artist had agreed to certain changes in her piece--removal of some of the metal bars--and the city authorized a five-year cooling-off period after which the City Council could review and, in this case, demolish the work.

The search for less controversial artwork and a less controversial commissioning process has led to new policies and practices. The majority of public art programs in the United States are based on Percent-for-Art statutes at the federal, state and municipal levels, in which up to 1 percent of the building or renovation outlays for public facilities are legislatively mandated to be spent on one or more works of art at the site. In the past the building has been constructed or renovated, and an artist has been brought in to create a sculpture (mostly), mural or hanging for some open area within or outside the facility. The more recent focus on the community has meant that the process no longer works in this vacuum, as both the commissioning agencies and the artists develop greater contact with the people who live and work there, learning about the history of the community and even (in some cases) including aspects of that history or actual objects from the area in the final piece.

An example of an agency's failure to take into account local needs and interests is a New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority commissioning (through its Arts in Transit program) of an outdoor sculpture for a new commuter rail station in Croton-on-Hudson by the artist Donald Lipski in 1989. "There had been a long history of terrible relations between the town and the MTA," Lipski said. "The station didn't have benches, lighting or bathroom facilities, and commuters had been complaining about this for years, first with the old station and now with the new station. There was a problem of PCBs dumped into the water by the MTA, which had upset a lot of people. There had been acrimonious labor relations between Metro North [which operated the trains] and its employees in the town.... It was a hornet's nest of bad relations, which I had known nothing about."

Lipski designed canopies at the station on which were to be placed figures of barnyard animals, "and people responded very negatively. They thought I'm some city guy who thinks they're all farmers since they live out of the city. Some people thought I saw them as animals being herded onto the train. If there hadn't been so much antagonism between the town and the MTA, people might have seen my work in another way. But all they could see was $250,000 being spent on sculptures of barnyard animals placed on the roof and no one seeming to care about them and their needs. I was just in the middle." The outcome was that Lipski withdrew from the project and no art was ever placed there.

Is no art better than art that people complain about? It is difficult to imagine a process of picking art that can overcome such monumental dislikes--for advanced art, for the agencies that commission art, for art expertise, for taxpayer money that goes toward something not immediately tangible. Lord knows, the public art community is trying, with public education programs and by enlisting community leaders in a "user community" task force to increase awareness of the project before it is completed; with temporary installations, sometimes devised to get the community and building employees accustomed to seeing artwork in a particular site; with exhibitions of the artist's other work, lessening the surprise factor; by bringing in the artist to talk about the work at local schools and community centers; by surveying the community to elicit reactions; and by promoting the upcoming work at community events and activities, such as farmers' markets or jazz concerts.

Troubleshooting, of course, cannot eliminate the potential for controversy, and in some communities or with some types of art, disputes may be unavoidable. At a time of jittery nerves in our nation, some would ask that art calm the jitters rather than mirror them. The question for the public art realm--indeed, the art world as a whole--is, Do people who support the arts have the stomach for disagreement? Wending one's way through the minefields of religious and cultural conservatism (don't defame our country or religion!), identity politics (represent our leaders in the best light--no Mayor Harold Washington in underwear!) and ordinary philistinism (you call that art?) is more difficult when the sponsors of public art have lost confidence in their ability to do more than contain the public's anger.

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