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What’s to Blame When Public Art Fails?

by Voice of San Diego

07-14-2011

In a great conflation of local public art funny business, somebody dressed up the Cardiff Kook as the Surfing Madonna this week, disguising a much-maligned statue in Encinitas as an homage to a contraband mosaic the city just made an artist take down.

Richard Gleaves, an artist and local public art super-fan, will be speaking tonight at the San Diego Museum of Art as part of its summer salon series, and he’ll be touching on some of the reasons that public art gets so contentious sometimes.

Gleaves, who blogs about local public art for the Union-Tribune, will also be talking about some of the failed public art pieces in San Diego over the decades. I sat down with Gleaves last week to catch a few highlights of what he’ll share tonight.

Gleaves takes a different approach to those failures of old than a lot of people in the art community. He doesn’t bemoan San Diego’s rejection of works by esteemed artists Nancy Rubins, Ellsworth Kelly or Vito Acconci, because he says the proposed pieces didn’t make sense for the people who’d live near them.

For example, the Acconci proposal for Spanish Landing included a sculpture of a plane, tail up, sticking out of the ground, right near the airport. The art community loved Acconci’s reputation and perhaps even his subversive, irreverent play on the airplanes’ proximity. In the late 1980s, when the public lambasted the plans for such contentious pieces, public art committees killed them, and several of the “blue-ribbon” panel members quit in protest.

Then a decade later, haters called Rubins’ plan to amass actual boats into a sculpture over Harbor Drive a shipwreck, though a lot of people love the one she eventually made for the back side of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

Gleaves loves to talk about language and how meaning and symbolism works for different population sections. Here’s a bit from my conversation with Gleaves:

Do you think there’s anything about the timing of these plans that made them so divisive in the community?

In the ’60s and ’70s, you had contemporary artists going public, saying “I want to start moving these contemporary art ideas out into public space. Let’s just treat the world as our gallery.”

And at the same time, roughly, American culture itself was no longer a monoculture. You’ve got a society where you’ve got millions of different stakeholders in terms of communities, cultures, sub-cultures, ethnicities, all of which have their own symbol systems.

That’s how I view the history of public art in the last three or four decades. The tools within the art world for understanding what they were doing were all predicated on a very neutral space, and on a very specific set of audiences, the audience that understands contemporary art. The minute they go wide and public, they are stumbling into a world far beyond their understanding as given by their own profession.

You said that a monument is about not just scale but also history.

It’s actually encoded in the word. I’m a big fan of etymology; I love to go back and look at the roots of words. If you look at monument as a word, “memory” is actually encoded in the meaning. I would say that it’s a very strong archetype, it’s worldwide. Why isn’t the Washington Monument six feet tall? Why isn’t the Statue of Liberty six feet tall? These things could’ve all been built to human scale. But artists figured out a long, long time ago that if you want your art to be memorable and you really want to impress something on people you make a building big, you make an artwork big.

Sure, those things have very literal, historical meanings associated with them. But I think what’s difficult for many people about public art now, is that it’s intersecting with values in contemporary art that say, “You know all those meanings you used to assign to statues? They’re not necessarily there in these pieces.”

If you grow up in a world and a culture where every giant artwork is associated with an idea and a history, then you learn that any giant sculpture, or public artwork, is supposed to make you remember and it’s supposed to make you remember some thing. And that means if you start bumping into new examples of a giant monumental sculpture somewhere, you’ve already learned, your culture’s already taught you that if an artwork’s made big, it’s made to impress you. And it’s trying to get you to remember an idea and that idea is traditionally historical.

What’s changed for public art?

A lot of the most egregious cases were in the late ’80s. And public art has really come a long way in the last 30 years. Now there are people like Lynn Susholtz (profiled in the U-T last week). These people are professional public artists. They understand what it means to put something in a community. And they understand in their process of developing their work that you need to get community input.

It’s not the model of “I’m a great artist; I have made my name in the art world in galleries and museums, and now I want you to give me carte blanche to exercise my unique artistic vision in your hometown, right in the center of a plaza.”

Folks like (city of San Diego public art manager) Dana Springs understand that you have to involve the public. Identify stakeholders in the community, get feedback and input. In some cases, the community’s actually driving what the art is.

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