Augustus Saint-Gardens, General William Tecumseh Sherman on horseback following Winged Victory, c.1903Last Friday’s Weekend Arts section of the Times article by Ken Johnson, Well-Behaved Street-Corner Sculpture, brought up some issues I’ve been thinking about lately.
Contrasting Franz West’s colorful welded aluminum sculpture to the nearby General Sherman sculpture, Johnson wrote: "Outdoor art isn’t what it used to be. Once it honored heroic individuals and upheld values that whole populations could embrace. Today, excepting memorials like the Vietnam veterans wall, outdoor art serves rather to divert, amuse and comfort. ...contemporary outdoor art tends to offer unobjectionable, mildly decorative or entertaining and relatively empty experiences."
1) I’m glad our culture no longer embraces the authoritarian and militaristic (not to say fascistic) values exhibited by the Sherman sculpture. Public monuments like this now seem pompous, grandiose, and even risible -- and that, imho, is a good thing.
2) Johnson writes: "The big problem for outdoor art is the absence of any consensus of values in our pluralistic, multicultural society." Well, to “divert, amuse and comfort” ARE some of the values our society shares. What’s wrong with that? Matisse showed great art can be decorative and pleasant; and Duchamp showed it can be playful and funny and still be profound. Why does art have to be somber and difficult to be taken seriously?
3) There’s a difference between public art and, for lack of a better term, “private” art -- art shown in art galleries and in people’s homes. Public art, I believe, should not offend. (Which is not the same as saying it should be “inoffensive,” meaning tame or innocuous).
I was put off by Richard Serra’s grandstanding over the removal of his Tilted Arc, the curving wall of steel, 120 feet long and 12 feet high placed in Federal Plaza in 1981. People who worked in the building hated it because the wall imposed itself on them while they were taking a break in the Plaza. This may have been what Serra wanted, but it shouldn’t surprise him that it wasn’t what they wanted. Serra’s response was provocative: "I don't think it is the function of art to be pleasing. Art is not democratic. It is not for the people to decide." Serra’s stance was vociferously supported by the art world. And this is the crux of the whole matter: I agree with Serra when it comes to private art, but not if it’s in a public space.
4) The distinction between public and private gets complicated in the case of semi-public institutions like museums that take government subsidies but are not exactly public spaces. No one is forced to go to a museum or to an exhibition, whereas public art is foisted on unwilling people. And while people may not want their taxes to go to art they find objectionable, too bad -- everyone has something they object to in the budget (e.g. the F-22 airplane).