Saturday, July 09, 2005

Public Art (my column in the Daily)

Let's talk about art...or should I say Art. The impression one gets is that art is a sacred activity, right up there with worshiping the Toyota Prius--vital to life itself. And yet, we're frequently told of the difficulties our communities have supporting the arts, and how government needs to step in to tell developers to add art to new buildings, or dress up an empty median strip with it, or find a way to support the guy who’ll tell us that the color of Palo Alto is light brown. You'd think that supporting art was the equivalent of telling someone to eat their vegetables. Something children resist while their wise parents insist. It's particularly troublesome with the visual arts.

In 1957, shortly after the Soviet Union sent a satellite into space (Kids, this means Russia and some countries forced to be their friends.), our beloved country decided to knuckle down and get serious about science. Sure it was absurd, but remember this was before we developed a case of flop sweats over losing the stem cell race. Up until that time the popular notion must have been that scientists busied themselves with novelty items of little consequence. Our national goal was to avoid being stuck on earth while the Soviets pranced about in space--never mind that dancer Rudolph Nureyev considered himself lucky to be doing his prancing outside the Soviet Union. Unless something was done quickly our school kids would be forced to read historical accounts of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin while Alan Shepard would still be struggling to get his beer distributorship off the ground. We were drinking six packs of envy.

As sub-orbital travel became common, tourists returned with a taste for the finer things only available in cities with good old buildings or bad new ones. Supporters of art became concerned about our cultural shortcomings. Artists weren't producing enough novelty items it seemed. Instead of the usual civic habit of honoring notable and heroic figures with statues, travelers now returned with visions of a more self-conscious art. At dinner parties they asked, "Why should we be denied the fun of taunting the local citizenry with something like Claes Oldenberg's oversize clothes pins?" Committees were formed and money disbursed based on the noble goals of acquiring community tchotchkis. We envied Europe's accumulated treasure and dreaded the thought that we had become a cultural wasteland. Europe had cappuccino--we were stuck drinking Sanka.

Such was the belief that schools began to think of their walls as incomplete until students began channeling Lascaux cave painters. In short order, defacing property other than schools became the way we tracked our decline. Youths with indecipherable handwriting became known for highly stylized markings, and galleries lined up to give their gloss of respectability to derelict activity. Art was on the way to becoming anything and nothing. A wasteland we hadn’t considered. Maybe you noticed Palo Alto's tarted up utility boxes and wondered where the need to express yourself in public would end.

Both Menlo Park and Palo Alto have troubled histories when it comes to civic art projects. Menlo Park councilman Andy Cohen enjoys painting and he wants to re-start the Art Commission to unite his twin passions--art and governing. Prior to the commission disbanding they negotiated art for gas stations and Seven Elevens. It was underwhelming. In Palo Alto curious glances have been cast towards the its Commission. Art selected for California Avenue has the disjointed quality of a ransom note, and the fight to place the Digital Egg at university plaza has Art Commission chairman Gerald Brett in a foul mood.

We longed for cultural respectability, but then everyone ended up being an art critic. You have to wonder if people once seriously believed that art was something that could be universally embraced? After all, we're Americans, one look at our waistlines shows that our culture doesn't like to be told to eat our vegetables--even oversized iconic ones.
Mea culpa. There was a time in when through the National Endowment for the Arts people could apply for individual artist’s fellowships. With an application and art samples a committee would determine who was worthy to receive federal funds. While not convinced that this was indeed a good use of taxpayer money, I did apply and was given money to continue producing art. How silly for government to think artists needed coaxing? Well anyway, thanks for the money.


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