Thursday, May 03, 2007

Tom Wolfe on Public Sculpture

Tom Wolfe, everybody's favorite dapper dandy, is a curmudgeonly critic when it comes to art and architecture. He's simply nonplussed by the Bauhaus and by abstract art. But don't let the photo fool you; he's quite articulate.

Wolfe's article "The Worship of Art," from the October 1984 issue of Harper's, appeared in abbreviated form in the Fall/Winter 2006 issue of Public Art Review, a biannual journal published in St. Paul. He's skeptical of contemporary and even modern art, which he said, somewhat sarcastically, was replacing religion as an object of worship. Public sculpture in particular.

At one time, a monument erected outside a building or in a public space was easily understood by Joe Sixpack. You'd have a figure on horseback with a plaque announcing his contribution to democracy. Or a fellow in bronze may grace the front of a building he endowed. Even the more modern Atlas sculpture outside of Rockefeller Center makes sense, Wolfe argues -- it's about the power and reach of the Rockefeller family's influence.

But then this new-fangled abstract stuff came in and befuddled poor Tom. Art that, instead of glorifying something obvious, like a man or a war, "proclaims the glory of contemporary art."

It fulfills the the new purpose of public sculpture, which is the legitimation of wealth through the new religion of the educated classes.
Which nicely describes what Aby Rosen, a real estate developer and art collector who owns the Lever House building in Midtown Manhattan might have been doing when he put Damien Hirst's monstrous Virgin Mother sculpture up in the Lever House plaza. This sculpture of a pregnant woman cut-away to reveal musculature and fetus says that Rosen is rich, audacious, and sophisticated in a creepy sort of way. It signals that he knows art, collects it, and that if you don't get it, well, you don't get it. What better way to cultivate a reputation than to publicly display grotesque art that few understand? This is what makes Hirst's piece successful for a billionaire collector: It's shocking enought that if some people don't like it, the people who do can claim that the people who don't are just squeamish. Put more simply, it's got shock value.

I disagree with Wolfe. I don't think that public sculpture since 1950 merely celebrates itself. I think it can also, at worst, celebrate the taste (however bizarre) of the commissioner. Not to mention his or her belonging to a rich, sophisticated, secular (as in non-religious) group of quasi-intellectuals. At best, it does much, much more, but it never does just one thing.

At best, public art can call attention to an open space, decorate, provide entertainment, and something give a community something to ponder and rally around. It can become a symbol of a place, like the Eiffel Tower.

To Wolfe, much of post-WWII public sculpture is part of a system of blobs and shapes made by eccentrics and displayed all over to justify the fact that there's a lot of other blobs and shapes in other places.

His outcry over modern art is as disingenuous as a person complaining that he doesn't understand what the trees are saying with all those leaves. We're not always supposed to read abstract art. It isn't always a symbol of something else, or a commemorative, or a story in physical form. Sometimes it's a shape. Or a blob. It doesn't have meaning. It has a shape and a texture and if one looks at it long enough, or in different ways, it makes one feel things and imagine things.

"This type of abstract public sculpture is known within the architectural profession, sotto voce, as the Turd in the Plaza school," wrote Wolfe. That's actually really funny, I have to admit. He continued:
The term was coined by James Wines, who said, "I don't care if they want to put up these boring glass boxes, but why do they always deposit that little turd in the plaza when they leave?"
Look at it this way though. Those boring glass boxes weren't boring when the first of them appeared amid a sea of brick and stone buildings. And some of the better turds really looked fresh at one time.

If there's a point to abstract art as I understand it, it was -- and may continue to be -- to create shapes and themes that do not have a basis in nature or knowable forms. The first times this was done it was revolutionary.

"The public sees nothing, absolutely nothing, in these stone fields, tilted arcs, and Instant Stone Henges, because it was never meant to." Wolfe wrote. Is that bad? When he writes "nothing," he means that they were looking for easily digestable meaning. Asia has been much better about appreciating the abstract than we in the West have. The jumps from a Japanese garden to raked gravel and stones to Wolfe's "stone fields" is really not so far. But when you're hoping for a sculpture of a guy with a sign that says "This Guy Built the Building Over There," a bunch of rocks can be pretty disappointing.

And when an artist charges you a million dollars for him to truck in a bunch of rocks and dump them in your yard, you feel like a rube, because any landscape architect, nay, any person with a budget and a phone could have accomplished much the same thing.

Wolfe complains about what the artist Carl Andre did when he was commissioned to create something for the city of Hartford, Connecticut in 1978. Andre brought 36 big rocks to the place, called it Stone Field, and charged the city $87,000. They are, rumor has it, still there. To head off any dissent, and there was lots of it, Andre had a sort of manifesto, wrote Wolfe:
Andre's Stone Field ... was created to illustrate three devout theories concerning the nature of sculpture. One, a sculpture should not be placed upon that bourgeois device, the pedestal, which seeks to elevate it above the people. (therfore, the rocks are on the ground.) Two, a sculpture should "express its gravity." (And what expresses gravity better than rocks lying on the ground?) Three, a sculpture should bot be that piece of bourgeois pretentiousness, the "picture of the air" (such as statues of Lee [the general] and Duke [the tobacco baron]); it should force the viewer to confront its "object-ness." (You want object-ness? Take a look at a plain rock! Take a look at thirty-six rocks!)
Wolfe is fun to read because he's funny, he writes well, and he's provocative. I'm not going to defend all abstract and post-WWII art against Wolfe, but I'm not going to agree with him either.

I found a similar argument on a blog called Two Blowhards:
Don't get me wrong, I love public art, and would like to see more of it. I just think that public art should actually connect with the public, not talk down to it.
I agree, but can we ever agree upon what connects with the public?

Alexander Calder's La Grande Vitesse (pictured above), one of his Stabiles, was put in Grand Rapids, Michigan (at a cost to the NEA of $45,000 in 1969. The blogger uses this as an example of public (and publicly finded) art that doesn't connect with the public, but I happen to think Calder's Stabiles do connect with people.

That said, much of post-WWII deliberately confounds. Wolfe quotes the great art critic and champion of anstract art, Clement Greenberg, "who said that all great contemporary art 'looks ugly at first.'" So, Wolfe says, if you don't like it at first, if it seems hideous and out of place, it's probably quite good.

That's not fair, either on Wolfe's part or Greenberg's (although I doubt Wolfe's reductive quote is the whole of Greenberg's argument). But it may be just this attitude that makes the incomparable Lisa Yuskavage's art (at left) worth so much these days.

No, I don't always agree with Wolfe, but the art world would be a lot cooler right now if more people thought of art less as a commodity and more as something to serve us, connect with us, and tell us about ourselves.



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