Thursday, August 25, 2011

Monumental Significance, Aesthetic Mediocrity? The MLK Jr National Memorial

Martin Luther King Memorial - Washington D.C.
Martin Luther King Jr. National Monument, Washington, DC. Image courtesy of Flickr user ehpien
I know many of you art teachers may be heading back to school, but in my office-y part of the land you can practically hear the tumbleweeds. Things are quiet, everyone’s enjoying the last of their vacation before the inevitable post-labor day rush back to normalcy. But in the public art world you’d never know things are so quiet—as the National Mall has seen (in addition to an earthquake) the unveiling of the first monument to an African American—the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Read on to find out more about the memorial and the place of monuments in the world of public art.

Aesthetics vs. Message
     A huge piece in the monument scene, and the world in general, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Monument will be dedicated on August 28, the 48th anniversary of the I Have a Dream speech. It’s an exciting time--and as many have pointed out, about darn time that one of the most influential, widely venerated leaders in American history gets his own memorial in our Nation's Capital. But while the unveiling of the monument is an event to celebrate without question, some feel that the sculpture itself leaves something to be desired. This duality of sentiment is nicely demonstrated in two New York Times pieces on the monument: “A Dream Fulfilled, Martin Luther King Memorial Opens” versus “A Reflection of Greatness, Blurred.”
     At the Daily Beast, Blake Gopnik has some pointed and well-poised questions about the monument itself—such as, why is a sculpture of a great African American leader essentially pinkish? Gopnik, and others, have also wondered why the commission went to Chinese artist Lei Yixin rather than an African American (or, at least, an American). Despite these queries, Gopnik admits that the message behind the work is cannot be overlooked even in the face of aesthetic criticisms. (I have to think that some folks in Indianapolis were looking for something more along the lines of this monument for the controversial Fred Wilson commission I wrote about a few weeks ago.)

Monuments and Public Art
     This duality in the coverage of the MLK work made me wonder--how is a monument to a public figure different than a work of public art along the lines of, say, this Claes Oldeburg paintbrush installed in Philadelphia this month? Gopnik, while pointing out that the MLK monument would never be placed in a museum, wonders whether monuments in general are even held to the same standards. I would posit that they are not. Though monuments are works of art, their charge, first and foremost, is to memorialize someone or something significant in a respectful fashion. The aesthetics are important, but I think it’s harder to argue for something challenging or outside the box with a memorial than for a more generalized work of public art. Indeed, the New York Times points out that the World War II and Roosevelt memorials have also been met with mixed aesthetic reviews. (Perhaps this is why Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is such an incredible feat—it holds up as a work of art and a memorial.)

What do you think about the new MLK Memorial? Is the message more important than aesthetics? Do you like the aesthetics? What might you have created for a memorial to this great man?

PS—Art Advocado is still looking for rural (or at least, non-urban) works of public art. If you know of any, please submit!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Public Art Controversy Part 3: The Carbon Sink Kerfuffle

Carbon Sink at the University of Wyoming. Image via

I’ve got one more public art controversy for you before wrapping up the Art Advocado public art series--and like E Pluribus Unum, this one is still unresolved. In America's least populous state, a seemingly innocuous work by an English sculptor artist’s work on the University of Wyoming campus has drawn criticism from the state’s powerful coal industry. (As we have learned over the course of the Public Art mini-series, there may be no such thing as innocuous public art.) Read on to find out why the above work has drawn the ire of some very powerful Wyomingians.

"Carbon Stink"
      The University of Wyoming commissioned English land artist Chris Drury to create a piece for their rotating, ongoing public art exhibition, Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational. The Museum describes Drury’s final work succinctly and beautifully, so I’ll let them do the talking:
Carbon Sink: What Goes Around, Comes Around, places beetle-kill pine and coal--both natural resources in Wyoming--in a formal structure derived from a mushroom spore, twisting into a vortex to suggest the natural process of decay, decomposition, and transformation. Typical of the artist's work, who routinely connects natural phenomena from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, the whirling deep, dark, and beautiful reflective properties of the coal play off the raw wood that has been charred so the materials merge at the center.”
The problem? this “suggestion” of decay and decomposition is meant to remind the viewer not just of the pine that was killed by beetles, but the global warming caused by the coal industry. Drury told the Casper Star-Tribute that the meaning behind Carbon Sink is based a sad fact that goes a little something like this: coal encourages climate change, an effect of which is warmer winters. Warmer winters allow beetles to live year-round, allowing them to eat pine trees year-round. Connect the dots--coal is the indirect cause of the terrible beetle infestation killing forests in the Rocky Mountains.
    The coal industry is none too pleased about this criticism, especially since they are a major funder of the University of Wyoming. (Fact: Wyoming is the US's largest coal producer). The director of the Wyoming Mining Association, Marion Loomis, said he was "disappointed" by the University's decision to display the sculpture. State legislators have taken notice too; Representative Tom Lubnau told the told the Gillette News-Record that "every now and then, you have to use these opportunities to educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from." (Drury addresses the controversy on his blog with sincerity and wit, referring to the contretemps as "Carbon Stink.")
     Despite this big talk, the debate has gone a bit quiet since it first reared its head about a month ago. It’s not clear whether Carbon Sink is permanent or not. Only time will tell whether UW officials will stick up for Drury and Carbon Sink or cave to coal industry pressure. (Or, perhaps Coal can be appeased another way--Loomis told the Casper Star-Tribune that maybe UW could erect a pro-coal energy sculpture on campus to counter the effect of Drury's work.)

Location, Location, Location
     I find it especially significant that all of the public art controversies I’ve discussed over the last couple weeks were site-specific. Though I’m sure there is great potential for controversy over public art not created with a particular place in mind, what is it about site specific public art that gets people so riled?
     To me, and probably many other art advocates and public art aficionados, a site-specific public work seems like a gift to the community--something positive that is made extra-special by its specificity to a certain location. But this location-specificity seems to be what also often causes problems for some of these works. Opponents of Tilted Arc simply wanted the sculpture moved off Federal Plaza--not destroyed forever. The Bronx Bronzes are alive in well to day, but in Queens--not the Bronx.
     Perhaps people only want beauty on their home turf, rather than the challenge of an imposing abstract piece or a reminder of what their neighborhood really looks like (or looked like one hundred years ago). Or does it have to do with the artist? In all of these cases the artist has also been an outsider--in some way, not from the community for whom they are creating their work. John Ahearn lived in the Bronx, but his race made him an outsider when push came to shove. Chris Drury is a Brit creating work for a community that is certainly not his. Can an artist who is not completely integrated in a community create work for that community without ruffling feathers?

What do you think about the Carbon Sink kerfuffle? Is the coal industry being needlessly sensitive, or was Drury insensitive to create a work criticizing his patron’s funder? Tell me about it in the comments!

P.S. The Carbon Sink controversy, the inaccessible but incredible work of Mel Chin, and my otherwise embarrassingly New York City-centric focus on public art has inspired me to go further afield for my final post of the public art mini-series and look at public art outside the city. Readers, do you know about examples of public art outside urban areas? Please let me know!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Public Art Controversy - E Pluribus Unum Edition

Plan for E Pluribus Unum by Fred Wilson. Image courtesy of
Last week I covered two public art controversies from decades past. It might be easy to think that public art administrators, funders, and the public have come a ways since these contretemps of yore, but that simply isn't true. In the midst of my summer public art series, a brand-new public art controversy has sprung up afresh, this time in Indianapolis. Read on to find out why the above sculpture by Fred Wilson is causing heated discussion in the Hoosier State.

Reclaiming the Slave Image
     This controversy surrounds Fred Wilson's proposed sculpture titled E Pluribus Unum. Wilson is known for re-purposing or reclaiming racially fraught historical images and objects, imbuing them with powerful meaning; Unum follows in this tradition. The sculpture, which was commissioned by the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, utilizes the figure of a slave from another Indianapolis public art work, the enormous Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial. Wilson's sculpture isolates the figure, removing signifiers of slavery present on the original figure, and places a flag celebrating the African Diaspora in his hands instead. Wilson selected a place for Unum in front of the City County Building, in close proximity to the 284-foot tall Soliders’ and Sailors’ Memorial creating a direct comparison between the two figures—one enslaved, one freed.  
     E Pluribus Unum has received high praise from the art world. ArtInfo blogger and journalist Tyler Green has been writing about the sculpture since last October. LA Times journalist Christopher Knight called Unum “one of the most compelling ideas for a public art project that I’ve encountered in a very long time.” But some Indianapolis residents are not so keen on Wilson’s plan for Unum. A group called Citizens Against the Slave Image has been particularly vocal in their anti-Wilson criticism. They feel that Indianapolis should not erect a second slave sculpture, and that replicating the slave figure puts forth an image of nameless African Americans that is humiliating and negative. They would like to see a sculpture of a recognized, prominent, successful African American, rather than another nameless slave.
     Citizens Against the Slave Image also finds the intended site for E Pluribus Unum—in front of the City County Building, on public land—to be particularly problematic. “..for the sake of our children who need real heroes, let's honor a real person who made both sacrifices and major contributions,” Unum opponent Clete Ladd wrote in a Letter to the Editor to the Indianapolis Star.

Small Protest...Big Impact
      On July 29, Citizens Against the Slave Image staged a protest against E Pluribus Unum calling for its relocation. The project’s funder, the Central Indiana Community Foundation, was skittish enough to quickly agree to move the sculpture off the public land to another location on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. Indeed, CICF was so nervous that they agreed to relocate E Pluribus Unum before the protest even occurred. And Green points out that there was only a turnout of about fifty people at the anti-Unum rally--not exactly a resounding and unanimous cry against the work.
     Though Wilson has not backed out of the project yet, a relocation will most likely weaken the power of Wilson’s original plan by removing it out of proximity of the original monument, effectively cutting off the strong side by side comparison inherent in the original plan. As Tyler Green writes, “If you unilaterally eliminate the site for a site-specific work, you are left merely hoping the artist will stick around to work with you on another project.”

"A Meaningful Source of Discussion"
      So how does the Unum controversy compare to Tilted Arc and the Bronx Bronzes? Have we learned any lessons since these notorious controversies of decades past? On the one hand, perhaps public art administrators have learned from the past mistakes we saw with those two public art debacles. There has been little to no secrecy involved in planning this project; even the project’s official website is a place for dialogue both for and against E Pluribus Unum. As I discussed last week, greater transparency and community outreach prior to the installation of both the Serra and Ahearn pieces could have resulted in a better outcome. Had E Pluribus Unum been installed with less insight into the design and process, there could have been an even bigger fracas.
      But on the other hand, this added transparency could end up sounding the death knell for Unum. CICF is so nervous about the controversy that they agreed to move the sculpture off public land before the protest even occurred, and as Green updated this morning, their director is still on the defense. Even if Unum is completed in another location, its original meaning will be undeniably compromised.
     This raises a myriad of questions, but a couple really stick out in my mind. Is it possible to reconcile what the public wants with what the artist wants? And why commission an artist to create a work for the public if a small segment of the public has the ability to derail the project, stripping it of its original meaning?     
     Consider Indiana Museum of Art Director Max Anderson's answers to these questions, as spelled out in an op-ed for the Indianapolis Star. Anderson says that good public art is “a meaningful source of discussion…about issues of common, public concern.” Whether or not this sculpture is installed, it has certainly sparked a discussion about race in Indianapolis, and in America, through op-eds and the web. He cites Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington as an originally controversial public art work that has now become a national treasure, and a source of rich dialogue.

What do you think about E Pluribus Unum? Is it a meaningful source of dialogue or an offensive representation of a painful segment of America’s history? And does everyone have to love public art for it to be successful? Tell me about it in the comments!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Quick and Dirty on Controversy in Public Art - Past Edition

Richard Serra with Tilted Arc. Image via Minimalissimo
So far in my summer public art mini-series I've focused on the positives--public art beautifies, attracts tourists (and their dollars), and can even solve complex environmental challenges. Hooray for public art! But I've been largely ignoring a huge white elephant in the room--public art has a tendency to attract controversy. Public art controversy (like litterbugs) comes in different shapes and sizes, stemming from hot button issues such as use of public funds and racial tensions, as well as concerns about aesthetics. It's important for anyone advocating for public art (or working to get some installed) to be familiar with these past controversies so they may understand what can get some people so riled up about public art. Let's have a look at two major public art controversies of years past, shall we?

Richard Serra: Oppressive Abstraction?
     One would me remiss to mention the topic of public art controversies without addressing the notorious Tilted Arc episode of the 1980s. In the mid-1970s, the General Services Administration (GSA) Art in Architecture program commissioned renowned sculptor Richard Serra to create a work for Federal Plaza, a vast square outside the Javits Federal Office building in downtown New York City. (Serra was recommended for the job by a peer panel from the National Endowment for the Arts.) The result was Tilted Arc - a 72 ton, 120 foot long, 12 foot high sculpture of solid cor-ten steel (which appears weathered and rusted). The site-specific sculpture was oriented to diagonally bisect Federal Plaza.
     Tilted Arc was installed in 1981 to a nearly immediate outcry from the denizens of the Javits building and other nearby offices. Opponents of the sculpture felt it was oppressive, and, essentially, an eyesore--large and unsightly. Some tried to argue that Tilted Arc attracted rats and could even harbor terrorists, but the main opposition was based on the aesthetics of the work (and the use of public funds to finance such a publicly disliked project.)
     Through the early 1980s, several petitions requesting the removal of Tilted Arc were circulated and submitted to the GSA; this led to a hearing in 1984 held by the main opponents of the sculpture. Folks on both side of the controversy testified; however, most on the pro-Serra side were curators, scholars, and gallerists from the art world, not local office workers who encountered the sculpture on a regular basis. This group argued for artist's freedom of expression and for the importance of Serra as a modern sculptor. (You can read testimony from both sides here.) It's also worth noting that the five-person panel deciding the hearing did not include any public art experts.
     After three days of hearing testimony from both sides of the argument, the panel voted to remove the sculpture 4-1, and Serra sued for breach of contract. Though GSA had proposed to move the sculpture, Serra said that because sculpture was site-specific, to re-locate it would be to destroy it. Serra lost his lawsuit, and Tilted Arc was removed in 1989. (It's in storage today.)

Tilted Arc from above. Image via Minimalissimo.

John Ahearn's Bronx Bronzes
     John Ahearn's public sculpture style could not be much different from Richard Serra's, yet just a few years after Tilted Arc Ahearn found himself at the center of another public art contretemps. Ahearn, a white resident of the South Bronx, was known both in the his neighborhood and in the art world for his painted bronze sculptures depicting local residents  in a vibrant and positive fashion--using a medium traditionally reserved for heroes and allegorical figures to depict everyday people. In the wake of Tilted Arc, Ahearn's familiarity with this community (and the community's familiarity with his work) made him an attractive choice for a public art commission for the 44th Precinct Police Station in the Bronx financed by New York's Percent for Art program. (Percent for Art provides that "one percent of the budget for eligible City-funded construction projects be spent on artwork for City facilities.")
     Ahearn's works for the 44th Precinct were meant to be no different than his previous sculptures and relief murals that had been well received in the community. Ahearn created casts of local residents--a young girl on roller skates and two boys, one alone, another with his dog--for the commission. But there was an immediate outcry when the sculptures were unveiled in 1992. (You can see what the sculptures look like here.)
     Some community members said sculptures represented a side of their neighborhood that they did not want presented--especially in their highly prominent location along the Grand Concourse, a main Bronx thoroughfare for residents, tourists and outsiders visiting Yankee Stadium, and people passing through en route elsewhere. The youth depicted in the sculptures were idle--hanging out on the street--and, some felt, intimidating, even reminiscent of drug dealers and hustlers from the neighborhood. Some wondered why Ahearn had not chosen to depict a student in graduation robes or youth in the area engaged in more "productive" activities For this reason, some believed Ahearn's depictions of these African American and Latino youths came from a place of racial misunderstanding, or even racism.
     The Bronx Bronzes controversy spread to Manhattan as the press got wind of the furor surrounding the sculptures (and the fact that the project cost $99K in city funds). Ahearn wanted to maintain close ties and a good relationship with his community, and was dissapointed and upset by this reception. Unlike Serra, who fought to keep Tilted Arc in place, he insisted the sculptures be removed and even absorbed the cost for the sculptures re-location. The Bronx Bronzes now reside at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens.

Navigating the Aesthetic, and the Political
     Both the Bronx Bronzes and Tilted Arc illustrate how public art projects can become contentious for the public they are intended to benefit. Aesthetics may be a problem; politics, too. But both cases make it clear that community acceptance and outreach is imperative for a successful public art project. Indeed, one reason cited as a failure of Tilted Arc is the GSA's lack of community outreach prior to the sculpture's installation. So the imposing, enormous steel slab may have seemingly appeared out of thin air to some of its opponents.  Had there been some preparation, or had they known Serra's intentions for the work before seeing it installed, local residents and workers may have not felt so strongly opposed to the idea of Tilted Arc.
     In the case of John Ahearn, city officials overlooked the artist's racial difference from the South Bronx community because he had worked in the community before; they felt he was a safe choice and that nothing could go wrong. In his interview with Ahearn in Dialogues in Public Art, Tom Finkelpearl notes that city officials were so comfortable with Ahearn's work that it was barely reviewed during the creative process. By the time the sculptures were installed, controversy could not be avoided. (The silver lining- both artists continue to have successful careers today.)

For more information about Tilted Arc and the Bronx Bronzes controversies, I recommend (once again) Tom Finkelpearl's terrific book Dialogues in Public Art. (If you are interested in public art at all this book is invaluable). This College of Fine Arts at Arizona University page also provides a painstakingly detailed history of Tilted Arc. And for more on other public art controversies in New York City, check out this WNYC story.

Though these two episodes have greatly affected how public art is commissioned and implemented today, especially when funded publicly, we are not immune to such controversies in the 21st century--or even in 2011. Next week I'll address some very current public art controversies going on outside of New York City.

What do you think about these two controversies? Would you want Tilted Arc outside your office? Were the Bronx Bronzes insensitive? Or were these artists crucified by a public that misunderstood their intentions for their works? Is the answer somewhere in between? We're talking about public art, so let's hear from the Art Advocado public!