Year-End Specials

In 2001, the cultural events that mattered proved exceptions to the rules

The major arts stories of the year in St. Louis all involve interchanges between art and life: the People Project, the Forest Park gates, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra financial crisis, the opening of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. The successes and failures of each of these endeavors can be defined by their ability, or inability, to convey the extraordinary in a world where sameness reigns, to choose specialness over the common, to accept the responsibility of art, which is to be exceptional, beyond everyday matters of existence.

The People Project (and we promise not to belabor the point) failed on all counts because it set out from the start to ignore them. Way back at the People Project's misconception, one of its advocates, the Urban League's Jim Buford, proclaimed that the People Project wasn't about art, it was about community -- community being one of those easy arts buzzwords, one to make us all feel the warmth and goodwill wrapped around the cynicism. Because it wasn't about art, it didn't have to be about much at all, and any artist with any sense understood this. With a $1,500 commission for each sponsored figure, the savvy artists figured dollars per hour and worked accordingly -- the proof is in the product (and, predictably, People Project director Porter Arneill said it wasn't about product but "process," another buzzword that just gives us hives). How this was all connected to community or fun -- which sponsors the Regional Arts Commission and Focus St. Louis insisted it was -- remains incoherent. It sure wasn't about art -- which they admit -- and so street corners around the region were marked by innocuous pieces of junk. The only specialness that was registered came when somebody actually had the temerity to steal one.

When arts administrators seek nothing more than the common denominator, they rarely hit even the broad side of a very broad barn. RAC and Focus thought they had a winning prescription, what with the fabled success of cows and pigs and moose in urban settings, but public art succeeds when it melds conceptually and formally into a site. Cows and pigs and moose fit in Chicago and Cincinnati and Toronto, respectively, because there was a sense of belonging, no matter how temporary. People figures scattered over 12 counties was just nonsense.

Even though the arching vines of metal that Lawrence Halprin designed for Forest Park fulfilled the conceptual and formal requisites of the site, public-art anxiety defeated the project. Halprin studied great public places and realized that such places commonly are demarcated as special and separate from their surrounding environments. Now, locals will tell you Forest Park is very, very special to them. Visitors will say, "So where is it?" Given these perspectives -- and that all there is to celebrate entry into Forest Park is asphalt -- Halprin figured there needed to be something to signify the park's importance and make its exceptional qualities recognizable to all. His design was quite modest, actually, and took into account the early-20th-century beginnings of the park, as well as its pre-World's Fair history. Rather than actual gates, Halprin's structures introduced canopies as entrances to the park, organic forms to walk and drive beneath, which, in an understated yet lyrical fashion, announced, "You're here."

Specialness is a quality St. Louisans resist. Our town tends to languish in the ordinary. "It's different" -- the most common critical comment to be heard around these parts when confronted with the exceptional -- is far from praise. The proposed Forest Park gates, however, got hit with a level of disdain beyond the polite disapproval associated with Midwesterners. Greg Freeman, in the Post-Dispatch, and Ray Hartmann, in the Riverfront Times, along with a host of radio and TV blatherers, attacked Halprin's design with know-nothing vehemence. You'd have thought Halprin had proposed the posting of Mapplethorpe photos to designate areas for fistfucking in the park.

In the realm of public opinion, the nays far overwhelmed the yays, so the city's parks-and-rec department and Forest Park Forever dropped this controversy swiftly and quietly (the announcement came right after Sept. 11). Too bad -- any project that could generate this much heat in St. Louis had something going for it. But as the collective benignly continues to go along and resist change, ambition is drained and eventually leaves for other, livelier places.

One of the few truly exceptional institutions this city has going for it is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and it continues its perilous journey, barely avoiding financial bankruptcy (receiving $25 million in pledges in stopgap funding before a Dec. 31 deadline) as it risks artistic bankruptcy (musicians going elsewhere while the money problems get sorted out). The ongoing suspense over the fate of the SLSO has grown tiresome to the public. Announcements of "fiscal responsibility" don't compete with the "Ode to Joy."

What's really at stake at Powell Hall is a concert of values. Although it's good PR to cherish those sweet little $5 contributions, sentimentality is not going to raise a $150 million endowment. The real question surrounding the SLSO crisis focuses on those individuals and corporations with the resources to support it. Are they willing to invest in preserving a rarified artistic experience, those evenings in Powell Hall when the SLSO is playing as one of the great orchestras of the world? An evening with SLSO is different, majestically so, can even be sublime. In the midst of the squalor of the city and the eroding fear of terrorism, can these redemptive sounds still be heard here in St. Louis? Will the privileged vote that it's worth it, for all?

Shakespeare put the question this way in his 65th Sonnet: "How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,/Whose action is no stronger than a flower?" Maybe it takes a series of concrete rectangles cut in the urban fabric. At the newly opened Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, the porous divide between art and life has been buttressed. The interior of the structure has been designed to charge the sensual. This is not the atmosphere of the gallery or the art museum or the shopping mall -- which have grown into distressingly homogenous settings. The Pulitzer Foundation is unique, formed of uncompromising integrity. Light and time are reshaped there. You engage with art as you would the most intimate conversation.

It takes enormous resources of money, brains and will to pull this off. It means coming to solutions outside the status quo. There are things to be learned from Tadao Ando's building, about life and art, the demarcations between the two, and what is necessary in the post-Sept. 11 world to render meaning and beauty from the chaos and brutality of the time.

The novelist Robert Stone has written that the most disastrous idea of the 20th century was the merging of art and life. The destruction of the World Trade Center, at the beginning of this century, proves Stone's point: The planes crashed into the towers again and again and again on television screens like the umpteenth trailer for another sequel to Lethal Weapon or Die Hard or Independence Day. Even as the ash of the towers fell on the citizens of New York, Sept. 11 was being transformed into a made-for-TV event (which didn't take much because, and this is truly chilling, it was a made-for-TV event).

The psyche is imperiled when artifice is indistinguishable from reality. The artistic enterprises that matter, those that we return to as reservoirs for the soul (to borrow a Robert Bly phrase), have the courage to take exception from the norm. They subvert the real (Halprin, SLSO, the Pulitzer Foundation). They don't cater to it.

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