In 2011, a statue was vandalized in Chicago, an event that is less common than you might think. A few Banksy-level graffiti impresarios aside, vandals are the lowest form of criminal, generally lacking in ambition and daring, preferring to work in such shadowy milieus as exurban overpasses rather than the well-lighted spaces that typically host works of public art. But the work in question was especially inciting, so much so that “the social contract doesn’t work,” as Jon Pounds of the Chicago Public Art Group put it at the time, “because [the statue] is itself laden with political meaning, and provocative meaning, and sexual meaning.” The statue is called “Forever Marilyn,” and it is a goofy supersized painted-aluminum depiction of Marilyn Monroe in her famous blown-skirt pose from The Seven-Year Itch. Its sexual meaning is plain: It is the ultimate upskirt shot — it’s as much pubic art as public art — and the exposed underthings of this 26-foot-tall, 15-and-a-half-ton Super Marilyn are what the lawyers like to call an “attractive nuisance.” But political meaning? So hated was the statue in Chicago that it eventually was foisted off on Palm Springs, Calif. — a befitting retirement for a Hollywood icon of Miss Monroe’s generation — where it currently stands sentinel over a municipal parking lot across from the local Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, from which vantage point I have spent many caffeinated hours contemplating the image in what has so far proved a fruitless search for political meaning. If Marilyn has something to say about foreign policy or tax reform, she has not spoken to me of it.
Forever Marilyn was reviled in Chicago and is in some quarters considered the worst and most hideous piece of public art in the country. It would not make my top-ten list of horrible public art; in truth, it wasn’t even the worst piece of public art in Chicago, that honor belonging to Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, a hundred-ton stainless-steel kidney bean. Understandably nicknamed “The Bean,” it is probably Chicago’s most popular piece of public art, having appeared in everything from rap videos to indie movies to a hundred million tourist photos. “Let’s be frank: The Bean is hot,” proclaims the Chicago Tribune. The Bean is in fact the perfect distillation of everything that is blandly and inescapably awful about public art, the modern urban equivalent of floral wallpaper: It was chosen by a committee, it ran $10 million over budget, it is gargantuan in scale, and, far from being “laden with political meaning, and provocative meaning, and sexual meaning,” it is free of any content at all: It is a big metal bean polished to a mirror finish, and if it has any meaning it is as a meditation on the beanhood of the bean as such.