The Corner

Culture

Against Public Art

(Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

In his philippic against advertising, published at National Review Online, Alexi Sargeant writes of a “rebellion” in the form of “artistic guerilla campaigns” against advertising placards on pay phones. (Readers under 30: Ask your parents what a pay phone is.) This is the work of something called Art in Ad Places, which, inevitably, advertises itself as “a collective.” Of course.

The more plain term for what we are talking about here is vandalism, the destruction of property — even if it is ugly property — by petty criminals for political ends.

A write-up in The Nation finds the group arguing that advertisements for cosmetic surgery and other communications that annoy some feminists are “psychologically damaging visual pollution that is pushed on viewers without their consent.” So is Penn Station in New York and the FBI building in Washington. For that matter, I don’t consent to see the cover of The Nation when I walk by a newsstand. (Readers under 30: Ask your parents what a newsstand is.) Visual pollution? Intellectual pollution? I think they still print The New Republic.

“We need to reclaim the space these ads take up in our attention and our cities.” No, you don’t — it isn’t your space to reclaim. They don’t give Victoria’s Secret that advertising space on the sides of buses. If you want to put the stuff you think (possibly wrongly!) is art in that space, it’s a free market.

Sargeant’s column suggests (and the headline insists) that the alternative here is “public art.” Public art in these United States is more or less exactly what you’d expect when you ask the Philadelphia city council to exercise good taste: garbage, ranging from the hideous to the banal. Public art in practically every American city cursed with it is a scandal, a crime against taste, sense, proportion, and the part of the human spirit that art at its best addresses.

Public art tends to be free of content, for obvious political reasons. If I may quote myself:

Content is controversial because people are controversial. Imagine, if you can, New York City’s attempting to name one of its busiest and most prestigious intersections after Christopher Columbus in anno Domini 2014. The city fathers would have a better chance of naming it for Jefferson Davis. But even a sculpture honoring the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. — surely the most honored American in modern life, if we’re counting street namings — contains rich raw materials for political disputes. The memorial to the Reverend King in Washington proved to be a perfect machine for the mass production of grievance: that the Chinese artist designing the project had once sculpted Mao Zedong and was casting the Reverend King in the style of a Leninist monument, that the stone was imported, that the imported stone was white and therefore inappropriate for depicting a black man, that the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers did not get a sufficient cut of the action, etc. People do not have very strong opinions about the beanhood of the bean as such, or about bright-red steel girders piled together, which under the name of “Joie de Vivre” is the piece of public art that anchors New York’s Zuccotti Park, acting as a beacon for the Occupy Wall Street rabble. But people do have strong opinions about people and about depictions of people, which is perhaps why it once seemed like a good idea to Frank Gehry to design a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower that contained no depiction of Dwight D. Eisenhower. (The plans have since been revised.) With a few exceptions, such as Austin’s tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan, it’s far easier to go with a giant clothespin (Claes Oldenburg’s Clothespin — Philadelphia), or a meaningless geometric form such as a sphere (Jim Love’s Can Johnny Come Out and Play? — Houston), than with a person, especially a person of interest.

Ezra Pound, a very fine writer with very bad politics, would have loved this nonsense, being scandalized as he was by the existence of billboards. One goes for a nice walk only to have it ruined when “some foetid spawn of the pit puts up a 30-foot wooden advertisement of synthetic citronade to defile man’s art in road-making and the natural pulchritude of the vegetation,” he fumed. Pound left us an illuminating testament into the refined kind of fascist mind. The idea of putting all of society under political discipline wasn’t — isn’t — just about factories and farms, increasing steel output by 20 percent in the next five years, etc. Fascism is at its heart as much an aesthetic as a politics, one that would see society liberated from the vulgar products of the interaction between property rights, liberalism, and the taste of human beings in their unimproved and unidealized state for synthetic citronade or Brazilian butt lifts had at a discount.

Sargeant, too, would have communications in the public square (which is what advertising is) put under political discipline under the theory that communications that make him uncomfortable are a crime, a species of sexual assault. Hence his call for “legal antidotes” to things like Calvin Klein ads. Recall that the Justice Department under Bill Clinton once investigated Calvin Klein ads as potential child pornography, even though the ads contained no children (and no pornography). The American Family Association, a conservative Christian group, picketed retailers over the ads. Think on that: Those ads may have been creepy and tasteless, but producing child pornography is a crime for which one may be sentenced to 30 years in a penitentiary. The time lapse between “I don’t like those ads” and “We should think about treating those ads as a felony because I don’t like them” was, back in the 1990s, about three weeks.

American public spaces are for the most part very ugly, and ugly advertising is a part of that. (What is it with Texas and billboards for lawyers with dopey nicknames?) We could operate buses with no advertising at all, if riders and taxpayers were willing to make up the difference in revenue, or if transportation authorities were more sober in their finances. But consider that when New York’s MTA decided to forgo alcohol advertising — just booze ads — that cost $2.5 million a year. The New York public-transit riders among our readers are not, I suspect, under the impression that MTA is drowning in excess resources.

But it isn’t really about money. It’s about: Who, whom? Who decides for whom? Do we decide for ourselves, or do we subject ourselves to political discipline everywhere, including in our thoughts? With all due respect, Alexi Sargeant is a theater director in New York, and I, a former theater critic in New York, very strongly believe that New York theater directors are among the very last people who should be empowered to make aesthetic decisions on behalf of society at large. If the choice is between the ghastly buffoons behind the Public Theater and the free market, I’ll choose the free market. If the choice is between the Cleveland city council and the free market, I’ll choose the free market. If the alternative were the Cleveland city council as advised by the ghastly buffoons behind the Public Theater, I’d look into hiring some trained monkeys.

Say this for Ted Turner: When he didn’t like what people were doing with their land, he bought it and put it to what he believed to be its better purpose. If you don’t like the advertisements in Times Square, pass the hat and put up something more edifying.

As an alternative, you could mind your own business.

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