The latest front in the battle over public art is taking place in Queens, New York, where Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, responding to angry constituents, has drafted a bill to allow more public input on commissions funded through the city’s “Percent for Art” initiative.
The outcry was directed at Ohad Meromi’s “Sunbather,” an abstract figuration embellished in bright pink that has been selected for installation in Long Island City.
As always, some of the dissent is fueled by the cost of the project, approximated at $515,000. But while money is an easy and frequently misunderstood target for such complaints, the sculpture’s color in this instance seems to attract the most critics.
In her essay “Looking Around: Where We Are, Where We Could Be” the renowned scholar Lucy Lippard defined public art as an “accessible work of any kind that cares about, challenges, involves, and consults the audience for or with whom it was made, respecting community and environment.”
Encoded into her definition is the very dichotomy that has created tension between artists and the public for millennia. How does one simultaneously consult and challenge? In a democracy, public space is the terrain reserved for the open exchange and dissection of political ideas. And it can be argued that one’s politics drives one’s aesthetics. So is it possible to present a work to a narrow-minded public that reacts with gut-level outcry to any departure from previously formed sensibilities?
Is it time for a new definition of what public art should be?
To be fair, both Councilman Van Bramer and sculptor Ohad Meromi have handled the issue with respect. In fact, one could argue that attempting to empower the public’s voice on the aesthetics of their immediate environment is laudable.
But while Van Bramer has noble intentions, in situations such as this, the problem often lies not in simply requesting public input. Rather, it lies in the unwillingness to compel the public to enter the dialogue in a professional and thoughtful manner (as Meromi has). All too frequently insults are lobbed from afar, landing anonymously in op-ed columns or social media platforms, having no efficacy or interest in problem solving.
It’s important to recognize that this sort of averse reaction is not new nor particularly unique.
After the Washington Monument’s dedication, the magazine American Architect and Building News published a review stating “It is to be regretted that ages are likely to elapse before the monument will fall down.”
In France, writer Andre Dumas signed a protest calling the Eiffel tower “…the dishonor of Paris.”
Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, now one of our country’s most beloved landmarks, was once called “nihilistic” by Senator James Webb. Vietnam veteran and Pentagon lawyer Tom Carhart referred to it as “a black gash of shame” in a New York Times op-ed.
And in a famous example, Diego Rivera’s mural Man at the Crossroads was chiseled off the lobby wall of New York City’s RCA building in 1934 because it contained an image of Lenin.
Why do we react so reflexively to the unfamiliar?
On one hand, it may be a symptom of an era where we increasingly demand instant gratification. Politicians ask us to declare ourselves for or against issues the second we hear of them. Our televised media presents us news in four-minute segments. Twitter limits itself to 140 characters. Overworked already, we seek simple, immediate answers.
Through his sculpture, Meromi actually seeks to reject the very sort of rapid reaction that has become so prevalent.
The sculpture is “at rest,” he noted, “and for me that gesture of rest, of stopping, is some kind of revolt against speed.”
In a world where haste trumps diligence, does he even stand a chance?
But this idea merely scratches the surface. As is often the case, the truth is more complex and more elusive.
Great artists seek to begin conversations by dissecting the world around us. Great art presents itself to the world as a polite intruder, sneaking into our public space and calling for attention. Once constructed, it demands one meets it on its level. And as viewers, we are called to encounter it forsaking ethnocentrism, our biases and our baggage. Doing so is the only way to offer it the respect it deserves, just as we would for a human being.
It’s a relationship that takes time. And over time, we forget how much we might change.
There’s no need for a new definition of public art. Rather, it’s time for the public to re-affirm the way art challenges us – how it asks us to see our communities and ourselves in new ways.
Meromi’s figure can certainly go a long way towards that goal.