Why is public art so irrelevant?

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Public Art : One Thread

Why is public art so irrelevant to the people and location where it's installed? In San Jose, California, there are four pieces of public art that I'm aware of: (1) A lifesize statue of an obscure US president who once visited our town and made a speech (Grover Cleveland or Warren Harding, I think). This statue stands on some concrete steps in a large downtown park. It's right next to a light-rail trolley stop and faces a court building. (2) A stone statue of an Aztec or Mayan snake-god. The snake is coiled up, and overall it's about the size of a sport utility vehicle. Kids climb on it sometimes. This was controversial: a pagan deity associated with human sacrifice. The politicians who commissioned it were accused of pandering to the Latino community. (3) Two lifesize statues of lean wolves sit high atop some poles at a bridge over the Guadalupe river (more of a creek, really). These skinny dogs are so small and so highly elevated above car traffic that I was unaware they were there at all until an art teacher mentioned them to me. I still don't know what they stand for. Why wolves (or are they coyotes?) (4) The Veteran's Memorial, a collection of flags, benches, and an outdoor kiosk with the stories of some vets. This one at least has an active constituency and a connection to real, living people.

Now that I've given you the tour, what's my point? Well, I don't think any of these pieces has anything to do with the reality of life here in the Silicon Valley--either now or in the past. Here in Northern California the dominant realities of life now are computer technology and commuter traffic. Decades earlier the background of life was agriculture, specifically orchards of fruit trees. None of our monumental outdoor art represents or even hints at these realities of life as it is actually lived. A water tower with a picture of fruit cocktail on it at the (recently closed) Libby's cannery is a better monument to the area's agricultural past than any piece of official public art.

But perhaps our public art should be about something else. Maybe it should be uplifting and inspirational. Maybe it should glorify a heroic person or an abstract virtue like liberty or beauty or justice. Or possibly it should even evoke a wry smile--a bronze two-story cell phone or a monumental coffee latte with steam rising from it.

In San Jose our public art does none of these things. Not one these outdoor installations is prominent enough to command attention or be a landmark. It's like some grab-bag of random items that somebody found in an old attic and put out on the lawn. It's hardly noticeable at all, and when you do notice it, you shrug and promptly forget it.

Well this is a long rant and a very provincial one, but I'll leave you with this question: Is your town any different? The only city I've visited with public art that is (1) worth noticing and (2) connected with people's lives and history is Washington, D.C. I'm not widely travelled, but I've seen pictures of European cities with beautiful fountains and wonderful public statuary. Even Easter Island and the overgrown Mayan ruins of South America leave us in the dust when it comes to displayi

-- Tom Shea (sheatom@apple.com), November 24, 1999



Well, the "irrelevancy" you describe is unfortunately intrinsic to the American way of life. Settlement of the continent demanded the laying down of an "abstract" capitalist organization of space. This abstract framework, let's call it "the Grid" provided for fluid movement of people and capital, irrelevant of topography, history, people. The art you see is a reflection of that. Its irrelevance is an expression of it. Art can only express the culture that produces it.

You make some clear insights about the particular pieces in your town. I would reccomend that you write a letter to the local paper. Isn't it the Mercury News? You might provoke a dialogue that would lead to the commissioning of more "relevant" artworks.

-- Lex Bhagat (icebreaker_NY@hotmail.com), January 28, 2000.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ