What in the World: Polemics and public art

I recently read an article in the “Appleton Post Crescent” detailing the removal of a piece of art from the public property near Lawrence. Public art to be removed? How dare they! I had no idea who “they” were, but my liberal arts inclined brain was absolutely incensed at such desecration of high art and the, likely, trickery of the uncouth to create such an outcome. In a state of high dudgeon, I pressed on into the article to find out more. It turns out a giant head — titled “The Collective” — made of smaller heads, is causing a furor among the local populace of Appleton’s historic district and I found myself agreeing that the thing has to go.

How could I side with these enemies of progress, these knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who fail to understand the intricacies and nuances of reaction-producing pieces? I hear you, I really do. However, the statue is odious to look at and I would just as soon have it recycled for whatever the value of scrap is these days. If progress means we have to look forward to more hideous art pieces in public places — such as the Chicago “Bean” — then I think progress needs re-calibration.

The issue with public art in the United States is two-fold. The first is the matter of the relative youth of much of the country. Travel to Scotland and one can enjoy art, statuary and fountains that have been hanging out in that same spot for centuries. The public grew up around these pieces, as did their grandparents. The U.S., on the other hand, has no built-in art but must go through the trials and travails of adding art. With this being art placed on public land, any tax-payer can have a say, as they should. If I owned a beautiful historic home, and some ponce from the mayor’s office had a buddy who made “Melted Frying Pan Structures That Evoke a Sense of Esoteric Catharsis” that ends up looking like a toilet, then you bet I would be walking down to City Hall. 

The second hurdle for American public art is that of our current inability to have nice things. Art is now debauched — head sculpture — ridiculous— duct-taped banana — or some other nonsense. What happened to a good old-fashioned statue? Cannot have it, too divisive. The person we put up on the plinth might be found to have once written an unkind thing via carrier pigeon and the sum of their brilliance and goodness is now moot in the light of this one flaw.

Here is how I see it. The city can try to put up art they think is cool. If enough of the people in the neighborhood where the city plopped this thing do not like it, then the citizenry should go down to the Hall and give the city what for. The city can then decide if the political calculus is on their side. If it seems like the mayor is likely to get voted out because of a chunk of art, then he is likely to have the artwork moved. If this is a non-issue to all but a few, the art will stay. Public land is subject to public opinion, that is the way it is and should be.

What irritates me most about this piece of art is that it is taking a prime location for something exceptional. The location is ideal, right at the end of College Ave. before the bridge, within the shadow of Lawrence. I suggest we ditch the head sculpture, better yet leave it in a ditch. Instead, erect a statue of Harriet Tubman. Have her facing away from the bridge, looking westward down College Ave. toward Lawrence. Tubman was illiterate all of her days, but was able to memorize and recite a great deal of the Bible orally. Having successfully fled the cruelties of slavery, she did the unthinkable and returned to the South time and again through swamps and other treacherous terrains to save her people. Tubman, I am sure, would have greatly enjoyed a paved bridge over deep waters that would take her to an exceptional school of learning. How beautiful would it be then to have it as if she, too, were making her way to the classrooms of Lawrence? A free woman, able to indulge her curiosities and brilliance; to live without fear of the lash or a slaveholder’s tracking hounds. This would be a lovely, progressive and popular alternative to what now exists. 

Feel differently? Agree? Let me know at abell@lawrence.edu. Also, if you wish to join a political discussion club with respectful viewpoints from both the left and right, send me a message to join “The Twaddlers.” We would love to have you.

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