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October 30, 2002

Public Art--for the Public?


I just got back from a few days with my wife in Las Vegas. While there, I read the very interesting “Art Lessons,” by Alice Goldfarb Marquis, a book on arts funding centered largely on the National Endowment for the Arts. In one chapter she discusses public sculpture funded by the NEA. According to Ms. Marquis:

While the NEA strenuously insisted that it was interested only in “excellence” and had no aesthetic or cultural agenda, the internal communications described by [Mary Eleanor] McCombie reveal a bias for certain artists and styles and a…belief in the redemptive powers of modern sculpture. When Northern Kentucky State University selected Red Grooms and Donald Judd to create 100,000 dollars’ worth of monuments for its campus, Ira Licht, the endowment’s public art coordinator, rejoiced at the selection of “excellent artists whom we’ve had difficulty placing.”

I was intrigued to see for myself how credible the NEA’s claim of possessing no aesthetic or cultural agenda was, so I looked up pictures of artworks cited by Ms. Marquis. Regrettably, I couldn’t always find pictures of the actual piece funded by the NEA, so I have included several pictures of similar art by the same artist.

Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse in Grand Rapids, MI --$45,000 (1969 dollars) in NEA money

Jose Rivera’s Construction #105
—resembles Construction #150in Lansing, MI
--$45,000 in NEA money

Donald Judd’s Untitled 1969
--resembles Dropped Plane
at Northern Kentucky State University

Carl Andre’s Stone Field Sculpture
in Hartford CT
--$50,000 in NEA money

Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc
in Manhattan

Just to provide some context for my reading, I was spending most of my time wandering up and down the Las Vegas Strip (only occasionally in a drunken stupor), looking at the profilic public art on display:

Fountain at Caesars' Palace

Hall at the Venetian

Viewed from Las Vegas, the idea that the NEA was without a cultural agenda is risible. The NEA had obviously equated "excellence" with a variety of academically-sanctioned art movements of the era such as Minimalism, Earth Art, etc. Although probably not giving what they were doing a second's thought, the NEA's agenda had the effect of validating academically-sanctioned art, and thus validating the role of the academy itself in the cultureverse.

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.



P.S. As a thought experiment, try imagining that placing boulders in lines on empty lots (essentially, the formula of Carl Andre's Stone Field Sculpture) was a thriving rural tradition, usually performed inebriated, and imagine how eager the NEA would have been to fork over $50 grand to some drunken rube then. No, it helped Mr. Andre a lot to be a college graduate doing something that could be construed as lecturing the suburban public about its relationship with the environment.

posted by Friedrich at October 30, 2002


You are also showing your own bias of what you see as being art. We all have our own view of what is valuable in art, be it Modern, Post Modern, Neo Classical or whatever.

The interesting thing about Calder's La Grande Vitesse, which was the first piece in the Art in Public Spaces Program, has been its complete integration by the city and its people. An image of the piece is part of all city stationary, the plaza upon which it sits is now referred to as Calder Plaza as common useage (replacing Vandenburg Plaza its official name), it is even applied to all city vehicles and garbage trucks. I cannot imagine a better investment in a piece of art than this 45,000 which has become an indelible image of a city.

Posted by: Karl Mead on December 18, 2002 10:58 AM

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