Monday, September 20, 2010

What's the worst piece of public art in Boston?

It's a common ritual for critics to hash out the best of the previous year (or decade), but picking out the worst . . . that's an unusual assignment. But one that local blogger Greg Cook - a man better known for sweetness than snark - has nonetheless bravely taken on.

And oddly, picking out the worst feels a whole lot more difficult than picking out the best!

For one thing, the field is crowded. When you're doing a "best of" list, you're dealing with (sadly) only a handful of contenders, guaranteed. But when you're trying to decide what the worst is, you find yourself surveying a vast wasteland, especially when it comes to public art. True, a few well-known disasters (like the Irish Famine Memorial, at left), come immediately to mind;but then you find yourself thinking of another candidate, and another, and another . . .

For not only is there an enormous field of contenders for the prize in question, there are almost as many reasons why they're bad. Indeed, nothing shows up critical folly like pondering the dreck of the past - because it always passed through some committee's critical filter, and was often even on somebody's "best of" list at the time! (Not so long ago, it seems critics thought wind sculptures were a good idea, for instance.) So it's worth remembering that public art is so bad partly because art criticism has been so bad.

Even so, you'd think a bit more quality stuff would get through the filter just by chance. But it's actually hard to think of any good (much less great) public art put up in Boston in the last, oh, forty years; I think, given Greg's apparent urge to have a contest about public art, it perforce had to be a race to the bottom. For it seems that not only has criticism wandered astray, but the culture has, too (after all, we just named our last big public works project after a ball player). True, some cities do better than Boston - but not all that much. Even Chicago's much-lauded "Cloud Gate" (below), though undeniably cool, is basically cool because it's very big and shiny, and thus elides the problem of "content" (the same way ball players do). Indeed, I suppose the last meaningful piece of public art I can think of may have been Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial (at left, which Boston's more-recent Holocaust Memorial essentially imitated).

Big, bright and empty: the celebrated Anish Kapoor succeeds in creating public art sans public content.
In general, critics (and intellectuals) want something politically and formally challenging in public art; plain folks just want something accessible and celebratory.  The intellectuals have an execrable record, it's true, but those who have resisted their prescriptions haven't done so well, either; they often come off as simplistic reactionaries, and the representational stuff they've insisted on erecting has ended up looking clumsy, sappy, or clumsily sappy. (It doesn't help matters that very few representational sculptors have reached the level of prowess that was common in the past.) In a nutshell, these days the critical establishment celebrates artistic modes that are inappropriate to the demands of public art, and the public's own nostalgic taste seems just as bad.

I suppose it's worth pointing out that the only recent "public art" that has made a splash locally has been the graffiti of Shepard Fairey. I hate Fairey because his work is plagiarized from other (better) artists, and because his rock-your-world narcissism is essentially as sentimental as the Irish Famine Memorial. Indeed, Fairey's success only underlines the unspoken crisis in public art: some folks seem to feel the only "authentic" way for an artist to enter the public sphere is to attack it. Clearly that can't go on forever - and at any rate, Fairey merely replaces nostalgic kitsch with hip kitsch, or gnostic dopiness; I mean seriously, what is Andre the Giant doing up on those Boston tenements? Fairey's almost as stupid as that big, sad pear in Dorchester (below).

So what's the solution to the quandary Greg Cook has so deftly put his finger on? Like everybody else, I'm not sure - and there's probably no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of public art, anyway.  The odd thing is that we yearn for it, even though we here in Boston seem to have lost the knack for making it, so we're going to keep trying.  But perhaps we're just not aiming high enough - there may be no formula out there, but there are people around who are getting it right, and maybe we should just follow their leads. Below are a few exemplars of the form (all of them essentially representational) that are worth checking out; this is what we could be aiming for.

Antony Gormley

Jaume Plensa

Philadelphia Mural Arts Program

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