Public Art: Arrogance Alfresco

Last December The New Yorker ran an article about Claes Oldenburg, the distinguished artist, who had just installed his Batcolumn in front of a new federal building in Chicago. The Batcolumn is a 100-foot-tall sculpture in the shape of a baseball bat standing on its narrow end. From the article one gathered that art critics, museum people, and the GSA (General Services Administration), the government agency that had commissioned the sculpture, all approved of it. But Oldenburg himself, although he had done other public sculptures and expected to go on doing them, entered a dissenting observation.

“I don’t really know if I’m in favor of public sculpture,” he is quoted as saying. “I think art is intrusive and incomprehensible, so why spend public funds on it? The Bat is very intrusive. Also, I feel uneasy about the large-scale egotism that goes into public monuments. Maybe that sort of thing is no longer justified. The Chicago Picasso is a good, tough piece, but the public had no real say in it—Picasso gave the design, and a group of rich people paid to have it built.”

How dare he? How can an artist, presumably dedicated to enriching his environment as well as himself and his fellow artists, say such things to a reporter? Doesn’t he believe in the magical power of Art, held up before every eye, to humanize our cities and improve us all?

But then he is probably not the only person in the art world who has had at least occasional doubts on this subject. In modern architecture we have the example of Peter Blake, a great evangelist turned freethinker; he edited the magazine Architectural Forum for years, practiced modern architecture himself, and then decided something was wrong. He has since written a book denouncing the presuppositions he did so much to expound, and architecture in general is going through a kind of convulsion, leading from “modern” to “postmodern,” because so many other architects feel that the nasty Philistines were not entirely wrong when they complained that modern architecture was cold, inhuman, and degrading.

Well, I love many works of modern art. I have been a friendly reviewer of new art, and I like some large-scale outdoor sculptures. But although I feel embarrassed about saying this in print, I also am not sure I’m in favor of public sculpture.

In Amsterdam last year I saw one result of a government program under which artists receive what is in effect a guaranteed annual income for being artists and giving the government a stipulated number of works. The government now owns a lot of art, and it has strewn modern sculpture of indifferent quality all over the city. One fears that, just as many young couples live on houseboats because of the apartment shortage in Amsterdam, the canals will soon be full of sculpture boats to deal with a population explosion in outdoor sculpture.

One sees less outdoor sculpture in New York, and the average quality is higher, but in both cities I have the feeling that a gang of vandals-inreverse has wreaked havoc upon places that looked nice to begin with. (These remarks are not directed to young people trying to improve a slum, but to the high-class art crowd.)

Although I can explain why a piece of geometrical recreation made of Cor-ten steel is Art, the truth is that when I visit New York I like to walk around the Conservatory Lake in Central Park and say hello to the statues of Alice in Wonderland and Hans Christian Andersen. These are not great leaps of the human imagination. But they look nice, and they are small enough so that you can ignore them and enjoy the park without having a colossal Work of Art enrich your mind, willy-nilly.

If our governments—federal, state, or municipal—want to subsidize the enterprise of art, that is fine with me. Considering what it costs to build and run a warship these days, I can hardly complain that we can’t afford it. But I don’t necessarily want to be forced to see the result.

During the Depression the WPA had a program in which it paid artists to work in their studios on anything they pleased. The results ended up in garbage cans, the artist’s collection, private collections, or museums, and that strikes me as the way it should be.

On the other hand, I saw God’s own plenty of WPA murals. They were not truly modern, and many were not terribly fine, even in their own way, but they were at least civic, and that is an appropriate quality in public art.

Truly modern art, modern art at its best, is not civic. During the nineteenth century, one goal of a career in academic art was that your prizewinning large painting might be installed in some city hall. Or you might be asked to do a mural for a public building, or a monument to the brave soldiers who fell for France.

Public art was expected to affirm the value of collective endeavor. Many artists felt there was something dishonest about all those works of art in honor of the State, Justice, Science, and Commerce. They were also bored by the neoclassical style. As a viewer I cannot say that all those curvaceous cuties, interchangeably representing France, Justice, or Chemistry, were wholly without their attractions. But I understand the artists’ point of view.

Modernism, in both the visual arts and literature, proposed that people could do better with their minds and lives than serve in the armed forces, work hard for prosperity and social progress, or even give unthinking assent to whatever might be done in the name of social revolution. Experimental art has historically been intended to promote subversive, critical, and private thoughts, although it is a melancholy fact that anything at all can be turned into mere decoration. If artists find it hard to understand why conservatives of both right and left dislike modern art, let them remember that, unlike the art it replaced, theirs is, at least in principle, an art of dissent.

But that is modern art at its best. What happens when a government or a corporation has a Program for art is all too often dreadful. Consultants and galleries specializing in artfor-architects go into business, and what they sell is a cheap, ghastly parody of art.

I speak with all the more bitterness because I often eat lunch in the cafeteria of the new Federal Building in San Francisco. Under an art program intended to enrich my life, the GSA, which builds and manages federal office buildings, has installed so-called art in the cafeteria. That art consists of abstractions hardly better in design than wallpaper, except that the abstract elements are so large that they cannot be ignored, as wallpaper could be. It’s not the worst abstract art I’ve ever seen, but it is pointless as decoration for a cafeteria. I like a visually pleasant environment, but I find the people who use the cafeteria more intensely pleasant than the pallid GSA art.

The needless tarting up of that cafeteria, like the commissioning of Oldenburg’s Batcolumn, results from the idea that city folk are in a visually barren environment and need to be saved by Art. The fact is that anyone who lives in a man-made environment is quite amply stimulated visually. If one wishes to enrich that environment, the way to do it is not to have a giant pseudo-Brancusi or pseudo-Anthony Caro sculpture in front of every new courthouse—the building itself being a horror—but to raise the general level of architecture, design, and construction.

On the cover of the May 1977 issue of Art News, we see a celebrated example of public sculpture, Alexander Calder’s Flamingo, installed in front of a federal building in Chicago. The sculpture looks attractive, and one reads that many love it. The building looks like yet another consequence of the International Style in architecture, bare, rectilinear, and cheap. One feels that the high-class people have decided they cannot make that building or its neighbors or Chicago really fine, so they will apply Art as if it were a Band-Aid, and in this case a giant Band-Aid.

I hope we can have public art without a Program, a bureaucracy, and a large appropriation of money that must be spent. The only sure result of a Program is the employment of program administrators. It isn’t even a certainty that the artists will make money on public art commissions; Oldenburg is reported to have lost quite a lot on Batcolumn, and it commonly happens that the artist just about recoups his expenses.

If we institutionalize the idea that no new building must go up without its mural in the lobby and its sculpture in front, some money will flow to some artists; but if we continue to operate under our present assumptions, a lot of painfully unpleasant or painfully insipid art will be polluting our city landscapes.

It may be that if we are to have a public art that is not painful to most of the general public, artists will have to develop a postmodern art, just as the architects are trying to develop a postmodern architecture. I myself enjoy and commend the private pleasure of modern art. I’m glad it has been made available, to those who choose to look at it, in such places as the Museum of Modern Art. Part of the pleasure of modern art consists of being seduced by a kind of arrogance. I believe that we as taxpayers ought to think twice about paying to have that arrogance writ very, very large upon our cities, in materials that last forever.