People Persons

The people behind the people of the People Project

The artspeak was much in evidence at the unveiling of the People Project a couple of weeks ago in Grand Center. Artists and arts administrators and politicians and corporate and civic leaders were in attendance, all smiling booster smiles at the artspeak catchphrases: "Art is a universal language." "Art is for everyone." The People Project would "put art where it belongs -- in daily life," proclaimed Hizzoner, Clarence Harmon. "Let the artist's imagination run wild," heralded Porter Arneill of the Regional Arts Commission (RAC), who's been charged with spearheading St. Louis' answer to the cows and pigs and moose and fish and lizards appearing in other urban centers. A representative from Emerson Electric touted the "credibility and integrity" of the effort, words that are good for christening all sorts of endeavors, including those that are arts-related. He then backed up those words by committing Emerson to sponsoring a people figure (at a bargain rate of $4,000 per) in all 12 counties where the project is slated to appear next April.

It was a sunny day, and those in attendance were showing their sunniest dispositions. Seven people figures were unveiled, sculpted by nine artists. Low expectations -- most of the local media skewered the People Project when it was announced last May -- undoubtedly lent to the appreciation of the art. However, as each piece was unveiled, the crowd didn't respond with the clichéd gasps of praise or shouts of invective. Rather, there was polite applause and then sincere expressions of admiration made to the individual artists by those arts advocates who lingered for cookies and chatter after the pitch for People Project sponsors had concluded.

The artists were entirely deserving of praise. They'd managed to take a ludicrous idea and transform it into appealing art -- inventive, curious, imaginative objects that could lend some distinction to wherever they might reside next summer. Raphael DiLuzio, who constructed "I Wanna Be a Cowboy" -- a fanciful Minotaur figure that serves as a clever response to the Cows on Parade phenomenon that precipitated the People Project and all the pigs and lizards and moose elsewhere -- says he was skeptical of the idea as well but came to see it as unique, a challenge. A cow, he observes, offers an artist a blank canvas, but "because of the literalness of the human figure," the artist struggles "to overcome the peopleness of the thing."

Phil Robinson, whose "Whose Turn?" is a slightly torqued figure covered with conflicting directional arrows, says he was also dubious. His first thought was "That's just like St. Louis," but then he came to think, "It could be fun -- no reason to have high-minded notions of art." He says he figured he now had the chance to finally make some art "your grandmother could appreciate." Robinson, as is his creative wont, has insinuated a bit of unnerving subtext into the work, however. The figure is "inspired by antihero Lee Harvey Oswald," caught in the posture of shock and pain as he's gunned down by Jack Ruby. How that concept might play with the public is anybody's guess. Yet it is Robinson's approach that keeps the work that far removed from falling into kitsch.

Keith Westbrook was even more bold in his avoidance of the tame. "Modern Day Slave" is an African-American male figure in suit and tie -- and shackles. The political bite of the work, at least this day, was assuaged, as those who had come to support whatever was unveiled championed whatever they saw, offering up a few more apt artspeak words -- "challenging," "thought-provoking" -- for the young artist to hear, thereby deflecting any suggestion that Westbrook's commentary might actually have some fundamental relevance to anyone's real life. Art, thank goodness, needn't be taken that seriously. Enterprises such as the People Project keep us all assured of that.

The People Project -- as RAC and FOCUS St. Louis and the People Project steering committee and the People Project oversight committee and the People Project art/design committee and all the rest who've gotten on board constantly assert -- is about fun, dammit! This is reiterated by representatives of RAC and FOCUS during a telephone Q&A about a week after the unveiling. A parsing of some of the People Project's media literature meets with the general response that arts administrators just want to have fun.

In the pursuit of fun, the People Project boosters avoid any word that smacks of seriousness or might make the public-art project sound too much like art. These are "people figures" rather than "sculptures" because, says Arneill, "What we learned is that when we used 'sculpture,' the general public -- our experience has been -- that became 'statue.' And when it became 'statue,' it became 'an old bronze guy sitting on a horse.' And that's certainly not what we're doing, so that's why we avoid the term 'sculpture.' The general public, from my experience, doesn't understand that word very well."

To further appease the culturally challenged, there is no call-for-artists for the People Project but a call-for-creative-agents. Arneill explains, "Anybody can submit proposals. What I have found in my experience is if I say 'artist,' a lot of people don't consider themselves to be artists. So that's why we're using the term 'creative agent,' to try and convey to people that if they don't see themselves as an artist, they could be a creative agent."

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