It’s public, but it isn’t art
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.
Like most public art, Cloud Gate stands at the intersection of the municipal and the corporate: It is the anchor of the AT&T Plaza, located between the Chase Promenade and McCormick Tribune Plaza. And as anybody who has ever dealt with a municipal government or an old-line corporation like AT&T can tell you, in those environments largeness is considered a self-evident virtue, scale being a substitute for quality and innovation. As James Panero put it in The New Criterion: “Rather than making work more radical, largeness now mainly makes art more institutional, since only multimillion-dollar museums with art bays and gray boxes are equipped to display, store, and commission it.”
The monstrosity of the scale of public art brings out the worst in even the most gifted artists. Robert Indiana’s paintings are joyful little works of composition, graphic design refined to the level of art at least the equal of anything by such titans of Pop as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. But his most famous work is that dopey Love sculpture that has been replicated everywhere from Philadelphia to Bentonville, Ark., to the Scottsdale Civic Center. And if you think that a gigantic aluminum Marilyn Monroe has sex appeal, consider what can be done with a little serif typography: The image is “full of erotic, religious, autobiographical, and political underpinnings . . . complex in meaning,” according to the Museum of Modern Art’s Deborah Wye. Love began its career as a 1964 Christmas card commissioned by MoMA. It later became a popular postage stamp, but there was something about this two-dimensional work that apparently begged to be cast in three-dimensional steel. With the popularity of the much-replicated image, Mr. Indiana has in some measure realized the Pop dream of art that is mass-produced, as accessible as hamburgers, one result of which is that instantiations of Love today grace such banal locales as the poolside of the Red Rock Spa and Casino in Las Vegas.
There is enormous pressure to make public art as free of content as possible, in no small part because, as noted, public art exists in the domain of the municipal and the corporate, where controversy is costly. Content is controversial. At my alma mater, the University of Texas, there has been a decades-long campaign demanding the removal of a statue of Jefferson Davis, the complaint being that a monument to the president of the Confederate States of America is a step past decency on a college campus in the capital of what was one of the Confederate States of America. The university also suffered a related scandal when somebody remembered that one of its penitentiary-like dormitories was named after a longtime UT law professor who, along with his brother (himself a university regent), had been responsible for organizing the Ku Klux Klan in Florida after the Civil War. (The event produced at least one perfect example of 21st-century prose, courtesy of the Austin American-Statesman: “UT President William Powers Jr. assigned his vice president for diversity and community engagement to form a work group and report to him by the end of June with recommendations regarding the name of Simkins Residence Hall.” There is an entire anthropology of the millennial era in that sentence.) I myself favor striking the names of Klansmen and Klan enthusiasts from public buildings and other places of honor, though this will cause considerable inconvenience for Princeton University and the entire state of West Virginia. Perhaps the Woodrow Wilson School could be renamed for Frederick Douglass, and West Virginia’s bridges and highways renamed “bridges” and “highways.”
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.
Public art is horrible for many reasons, one of them being that its roots are not in art but partly in marketing, which is depressing enough, but also partly in municipal planning and zoning, which is one of the most depressing processes in modern life excepting those in which somebody dies or is grievously injured. As a small-town newspaper editor, I spent my fair share of time in planning-and-zoning meetings, and it never once occurred to me: “This — this! — is the process by which art must be brought to the world!” (Mainly I thought about occupational roads not taken.) Municipal administration is a necessary business, but it is not an elevated one; the artistic impulse is as far removed from the zoning impulse as a Chopin waltz is from a cannibal’s kitchen. You cannot substitute one for the other. Consider: In Texas there is a statue memorial to a man called C. B. Stubblefield, a barbecue-joint operator whose legendary music nights helped launch the careers of Joe Ely, Jesse “Guitar” Taylor, and others. (B. B. King was known to stop by when in the area.) Terry Allen, the musician and artist who sculpted Mr. Stubblefield, remarked afterward that he would never again take on the task of depicting someone he loved, such was the emotional drain. There exists a sculpture of Mr. Stubblefield because others loved him, too; there’s a giant clothespin in central Philadelphia because a local ordinance requires that 1 percent of the budget of any new commercial development be segregated for public art. There’s love, and then there’s Love, and they aren’t really quite the same thing.
The list of public-art horribles is long. A cautionary tale is the career of William Tucker’s Okeanos, in San Diego, popularly known as the “Scripps Turd,” the people of La Jolla being as apparently literal-minded as Chicagoans and their Bean. Because the statue is located on the grounds of a hospital, the gastrological jokes more or less wrote themselves, and younger people, never having heard the work referred to by anything other than its nickname, came to believe in some considerable number that it was in fact intended to represent a measure of excrement. (It is a sign of our times that this misapprehension is comic but not unimaginable.) Eventually, the hospital administration moved the statue to a less public site — it may still be art, but it won’t be as public. There is something about public art that tends toward the juvenile: the giant blue bear peering into the Denver Convention Center, the crude Life Underground figures that populate the subway station at 14th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, Boston’s giant pear, Vancouver’s Digital Orca, Kansas City’s giant shuttlecocks (Claes Oldenburg strikes again), San Francisco’s giant safety pin (Oldenburg!), Geneva’s giant chair, the oversize jacks that are sprinkled across some of our smaller cities.
There is the occasional work of inspiration. In contrast to the self-aggrandizing giganticism of Philadelphia and Boston, the tiny village of Marfa, Texas, whose residents are keenly aware of the town’s reputation as an enclave of exceptionally well-heeled bohemianism, commissioned a cleverly self-deprecating work called “Prada Marfa,” a hermetically sealed reproduction of one of the high-end Italian designer’s sleek boutiques, isolated on a lonely road 30 miles outside of town. The installation was immediately vandalized, and the genuine Prada merchandise on display — bags and shoes selected from the winter 2005 collection by none other than Miuccia Prada herself — looted. It has since been repaired, though it is intended to fall apart, decaying into a picturesque ruin.
The looting of Prada Marfa at least had a straightforward economic motivation. Likewise, the seemingly annual phenomenon of a work of “installation art” being mistaken for vandalism by some naïve custodial staff is entirely understandable, and one sympathizes with the poor Southern Oregon University student who faced a raft of charges and tens of thousands of dollars in fines after “cleaning up” something called “The Depravity of Society Juxtaposed against the Apathy of Contemporary Culture,” which she did not know was intended to be a very important piece of artistic commentary on the American scene. There was no malice in her, unlike those who splashed Forever Marilyn with red paint in Chicago. Perhaps the problem with Forever Marilyn was just a matter of context: Chicago, suffering as it does from second-city syndrome (even though it’s really a third or fourth city), could not abide a piece of kitsch in its sleek and angular center — or at least a piece of kitsch with its cultural roots in Los Angeles and New York. (Chicago is fine with Chicago kitsch.) One suspects that a kitschy giant Marilyn Monroe is relatively safe in Palm Springs, proportionally one of the gayest communities in these United States. And the ubiquitous Mr. Oldenburg’s work is safe too, as are the Scripps Turd and the giant bears and oversize children’s toys and crude, vacant forms that dot our cities, lending a false atmosphere of modernism and high culture to our banks and bus stops. They are empty, soulless, meaningless products of the collaboration between the local branch managers of the Fortune 500 and the municipal bureaucrats who can ease or complicate their lives as whimsy moves them. To vandalize such objects would be redundant. They are the vandalism.