Public Exchange

Artist Mary Miss' plan for the space next to the new Federal Courthouse is vastly different from the statues and monolithic sculptures of the past. It's public art that actually keeps the public in mind.

According to former Washington University professor Casey Blake, the debate over publicly funded art had been simmering since 1967, when Alexander Calder's "La Grand Vitesse" was installed in Grand Rapids, Mich., funded by the then-fledgling NEA. Blake, who recently accepted the chair of the art-history department at Columbia University, has been working on a book that examines the last 30 years of public art in America. He observes that although "La Grand Vitesse" has become a proud civic landmark over the last three decades — it is even included in the city government's logo — it spawned "a pretty heated debate during the two years before actual installation."

The seeds of the '80s conservative rebellion can be found in this ur-project. According to Blake, the debate over the installation of "La Grand Vitesse" included those "opposed to the notion of modernist or nonrepresentational art." Yet another contingent "felt the Calder in Grand Rapids represented a bid for public power and public space on the part of people who already controlled private cultural institutions, like museums or galleries. For these people, the objection to the Calder sculpture was that it wasn't in the end a public work, or it wasn't self-evidently a public work."

Within this debate was an objection to the procedures through which public art was selected — that is, by an elite group in Washington, behind closed doors. Blake refers to this era as the "liberal-modernist project in public art," in which cities were viewed as extended open-air galleries for the exhibition of artwork by prestigious contemporary artists. Monolithic objects made by artists such as Calder and Serra were meant to enrich a community by their very presence, quickening a city's cultural pulse. Miss says of the '60s and '70s, when she was a student and emerging artist, "the only public art we were aware of were steel-welded sculptures in a public park," a kind of art object that is now ingloriously referred to as "plop art."

"The work that we may commission may be more conservative than the art world would like it to be. Our clients think it's cutting-edge. If I'm getting beaten up by the clients and by the art world, I'm in the right place."

— Susan Harrison, head of the General Services Administration's Art in Architecture program

Mary Miss: Her work asks the question “How can we deal with urban place-making in our time and redefine the way the built and the natural come together without a collision?”

Blake believes that underlying the opposition to the "liberal-modernist" model was an anxiety over the increasing decline of American cities. Public-art projects are usually connected to urban renewal (the GSA has a percent-for-art component as part of any building construction, for instance), but by the '70s most cities found themselves in the midst of severe fiscal crises brought on in part by steep declines in urban population. "There is often the tendency in this period for critics of public-art installations to focus on them as symbols of failed urban liberalism," Blake points out. "So within the course of a decade, or a dozen years or so, public-art installations have gone from being symbols of urban revitalization to symbols of modern projects for American cities that have gone terribly wrong."

"Twain" manages to touch on all of the elements of controversy Blake describes. Situated as it is in a public square, it remains an object of public debate. Blake finds that debate unproductive, with one side of the argument looking on the other as nothing more than rude philistines. "There are still a large number of artists and arts administrators who assume that all opposition to public-art installation comes from know-nothing reactionaries," Blake observes. "That's the immediate response to such criticisms.

"One of the real contributions people like Mary Miss and her successors made is to force us to stop and listen to the criticisms and try to respond to them creatively. If there is ever going to be a public-art program that is publicly funded in St. Louis, it will have to start with the premise that you have to involve the community in some way with the discussions. Unfortunately, this is still a lesson that much of the arts community has to learn. That may have been one of the real unfortunate legacies of the "Twain' controversies here in St. Louis. It hardened people's positions on all sides of this issue."

Mark Weil, Blake's colleague in the Wash U. art-history department, is one of those who could easily be lumped with the city's "cultural elite." He is not only one of the city's most significant art collectors; for an interview on public art, he calls on his cell phone from a cafe in Seville. But in regard to "Twain," he's part of the "know nothing" opposition. He believes the sculpture to be problematic "not because of Serra or the design, or if the finished work was successful based on aesthetic issues, but because there was no attempt to involve the public in a reception of the work.

"I've seen Serras on private lands that are impressive," he adds, but some of the issues Serra is involved in deal with a confrontational use of space, "and that becomes problematic in the public sphere."

Weil figures as an advocate for Miss' St. Louis project. "That's the kind of public art that works. It's part park, it's part urban development, and terribly ambitious. My feeling is that if one is going to do public art, there's no point in doing it unless you're going to do something major, to make a location that works for a great many people. You can't make a small ornament.

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