I was in Calgary recently. You remember this from such classics as “I lost the King in Yellow” and “damn, that was a good Manhattan, even without the cherries”. Well. Maybe not that last bit. That may have been a *private* experience.
At any rate, while being chauffered to the aeroport for my return jaunt, my hosts pointed out a really cool THING sitting on the overpass just before the turnoff. “What do you think of THAT?” the Fenris Wolf asked.
“I think that’s really cool!” I said. Because it was really cool. It’s a giant blue hoop just kind of…hanging out…on the overpass. “What’s it do?”
“It doesn’t *do* anything. It’s the latest piece of public art that’s causing a huge uproar.”
“What’s the uproar about? Isn’t it bad enough that Calgary doesn’t have even a single public art gallery? Now people also don’t want there to be any public art at all?”
“Well,” the Fenris Wolf said, “it cost something like $450,000 to build.”
“COOL!” I half-shouted (sorry about that, Fenris Wolf. I get excited. Even in cars. Like a puppy). “Good for the artist.”
It turns out that the city of Calgary has an interesting (although not by any means unique) public art policy that stipulates that for municipal projects, a percentage of the total project cost must be allocated to public art. I did not know about these sorts of policies (I never really thought about that before, to be honest with you. I just kind of went along assuming that all public art was pretty much reviled by 70% of the population for being a waste of money, and that everyone in Canada who values public art had to fight tooth and nail to get any of it installed anywhere, ever. I was wrong. I like being wrong sometimes). ANYWAY. So there was a municipal project in Calgary, and the city commissioned a group of German artists (called inges idee and consisting of Hans Hemmert, Axel Lieber, Thomas A. Schmidt and Georg Zey) to create a piece of public art, and their winning project was “Travelling Light”, which is a giant blue hoop.
This topic was featured on the radio this morning as well, with some interesting arguments and discussions. Like, I suspect, most public art installations, there are people who don’t like the piece. There are people who don’t “get” the piece (I’m not sure if “getting” it is the point, but I’m’a talk about that in a minute). There are people who are incensed that more than $450,000 was paid for a giant blue hoop (which, if you read up on it, is quite an interesting piece of engineering. It’s not just a big blue hula hoop stuck on the side of the road with sticky tack and chewing gum). There are people who love the sculpture. This is normal. The whole thing has sparked a debate in Calgary’s city council and they’re talking about reworking the city’s public art policy.
I don’t really want to spend a whole lot of time on what Calgary should or shouldn’t do (get yourselves a public gallery. Really, Calgary, that’s shameful. The only major north american city without a public gallery!? Phoo.) with their public art policy. But I do want to talk about a couple of things related to public art.
1) “I don’t think we should use public dollars to pay for X”. This is a statement with which I fundamentally disagree, but I also realise folks who think this way cannot be disavowed of their opinion about the importance of public funding for the arts (in precisely the same way that I can not be disavowed of my opinon that it is a NECESSITY to allocate public money for art and culture). It’s a debate I’ve had many times over (even on this blog) and so I’m not sure it’s even necessary to open that discussion again. I also want to be clear here that I include amateur sports in “culture”. Because they are an integral and important part of our quality of life.
2) “My six-/three-year old could do that.” Now this *is* an interesting argument. One of the reasons your six or three or two or nine year old could do that art is because before we train the ingenuitiy and creative genius and passion out of our children, they are pure vessels of wonder. This sounds *very* hippy-dippy, and I don’t mind that. The point I’m making here is that our children see things in ways that we have forgotten too look, and that is one of the reasons that art – ALL art – is so important. You might not be able to tell that the scribble in the centre of the page is supposed to be a goose, but your kid can. And your kid can tell you a whole story about that goose. And probably has a song to make up about it and an accompanying dance move. Do you know what this is?
This is a child’s brain firing on all cylinders. This is the very crux of learning, of growth, the very spark of intelligence. We learn through expression, through communication, through observation. What that kid with the goose-scribble has just done is observe her environment, interpret her environment, and reproduce what she experienced in an effort to communicate it to others. THIS IS A HUGE DEAL.
So when you’re saying that a piece of art is “so simplistic that a child could do it”, you are paying an enormous compliment to the artist. What you’re saying is that the artist has been able to recapture what most of us lose in about grade 1: the ability to see something, wonder about it, and interpret it. And to be able to create something that is wholly new or different. Sometimes this is representational, and we can “tell what something is supposed to be”. We are trained to think of representational art as “good art”, because it’s easy to grok, at first glance, that that sculpture is a dude with no arms or that that painting is a woman not quite smiling. And we get that those things make us ask questions about the artist and about the piece and generally make us think. But when we’re faced with something more abstract, those things become more challenging.
I’ll tell you, I was the first person to bitch about the Canadian government spending close to $2 million for Voice of Fire. I didn’t know the history of the piece, the artist’s intent, and I’d never seen it. I’d only ever seen pictures of it in the media. When I stood in front of that painting, I was completely overwhelmed. I mean, it’s MASSIVE. And it *did* something to me. I could go on and on about how it felt like I was falling into it, or about how I couldn’t tear my eyes away, or about how I could have very easily just spent my entire day at the National Gallery just looking at that painting. But I won’t, because personal experiences don’t amount to a hill of beans. What I will say is that as Canadians, we should be proud that our National Gallery contains billions and billions of dollars’ worth of artworks from all over the world. Voices communicating something, in a moment in time, that do, in some way, change the way we look at the world. Pieces that do make us question, or that do make us feel something. Some of them are beautiful. Some of them are ugly and horrible. Some of them are weird. But that pretty much describes all the people of the world, and that is an important thing.
3) “I don’t get it.” Not all art is there to be “got”. When you look at something and you immediately “get” it, you understand it without trying, you’re not thinking about it. You see a stop sign, you stop, you kind of half-assedly look around for oncoming traffic, and then you go. This is a basic activation of your lizard hindbrain and you’re pretty much just being a trained monkey. A sculpture of a bear that’s installed in a forest probably won’t make you think too much about it. You’ll be all, “oh hey. That’s a sculpture of a bear in the forest. That totally makes sense. Huh. It even looks like a bear and it’s actually in a forest. That’s great art!” But if you see a sculputre of a 40-foot-tall blue bear staring in to an office building, your brain starts firing off in all directions.
Smarty Pants could tell you a whole bunch about what this means, and the little tiny area in your brain, just above your ear, that basically gets tasered into action whenever you encounter something you’re not expecting. The short version of this is that you start asking questions. And when you start asking questions, you start thinking about things. And when you start thinking about things, your whole body goes into action. This, I think, is what the majority of artists out there are trying to do. They’re trying to get you to think about something, to feel something (even if that feeling is revulsion).
Not all art is pretty or palatable, or even likeable. And art is supposed to not only be a reflection of life, but it’s also supposed to get us to challenge what we think we know. It tries to get us to talk about things. To think about things. To get out of our lizard hind-brains and out of the trained monkey suit and into a different place. At least, that’s my take on it. So if you don’t “get” it right away, that’s okay. That’s GOOD! Maybe you’ll never get it (“melting watches? What the hell is with the melting watches? That’s not art; that’s just a bunch of nonsense.”). Maybe you will. Maybe you don’t like to think about things (that makes me sad) or question things (sadder) or feel things (still sad). Maybe you’re cool with the whole trained monkey schtick, and if you’re happy with that, then I guess that’s okay too. I guess.
There are many, many reasons why public art is important. Far smarter people than I have even done SCIENCE about public art. The fact that there is debate about it is a *good* thing. We argue about the things we are most passionate about. Ask yourself why a piece of public art bothers you so much. Ask yourself why you’re so upset about the amount of money being spent on it and whether you’d still be upset if the government spent the same amount of money on a concert, or a sports event, or a business convention. You might just not like the idea of governments spending public money on anything – that’s a very different discussion than whether or not public art is valuable.