What’s art got to do with it?

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.

"The Runner", public art scuplture in Athens by Costas Varotsos. Made of green glass with an internal structure of steel. Royalty-free image from stock.xchng by Lucretious
“The Runner”, public art scuplture in Athens by Costas Varotsos. Made of green glass with an internal structure of steel. Royalty-free image from stock.xchng by Lucretious

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.

Gallery of public art installations

cenobyte is a writer, editor, blogger, and super genius from Saskatchewan, Canada.


  1. While Calgary has that going on, this has been in the Saskatoon news lately. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/controversial-public-artwork-removed-from-saskatoon-street-corner-1.2628161

    I agree with all of the points in your post. That is why it is so hard for me to decide which side of the fence I am on in terms of this happening in our own back yard. While I think the Saskatoon sculpture is ugly and probably a bad choice when trying to increase the aesthetic of our city, who am I to say what art has value and what doesn’t? And in the end, the sculpture certainly did its job in making a buzz and making people think and talk about both the subject matter of the sculpture and the value of public art.

    1. With all due respect to Mr. Coupal, recyclable material isn’t garbage.

      Still, I take his point and I have no doubt that there were many people who hated this installation.

  2. It can go way too far – when all kinds of massive ‘art’ is just put out there on the public streets with no thought. I live near Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ, and the things on the way to the train station are hideous, kitschy monstrosities that make my stomach turn. The stuff inside – absolutely amazing (of ALL kinds).

    Good ones: the display, every kilometer or so, of amazing art set out by the Mexican Olympic Comm. Or the city. Or someone. For the 1968 Olympics – and still there, and doing fine.

    I’d just like to know who commissioned which pieces – and how much they got for pointing the commission to that particular ‘artist.’

    I know that sounds awfully reactionary, and art isn’t meant to be pretty, necessarily, but this garbage doesn’t make anyone think – it makes them throw up. Like the pile of elephant dung someone called art because it’s in a museum.

    Or the ‘art’ skewering people’s religions.

    I’m not saying it should be banned – Heaven forbid: that would be censorship. I’m just saying I’d love to see the financial trail audited. Maybe I wouldn’t be so censorious – but money for one art project is taken from all the rest, and there is no voting or any other means of public approval before such gobs of money are spent.

    Plus the more total garbage such monies purchase, the less likely there will be voting for more of it, so it doesn’t really help.

    Sorry – can’t do this any better than that. There is a reason the good stuff brings lots of attention to the museums that own it.

    Digging myself in deeper, aren’t I?

    1. I know in the case of Calgary’s example, the money for each public art installation is (currently) a set amount based on the total amount of the capital project (so if you have a $45 million project, your public art budget might be $450,000, for example). The bid is put out regionally, nationally, and internationally, for an installation of a piece of public art. The responses are juried (I’m sure each city has a different jury process) and that is how the winning bid is selected. This is not an uncommon sort of practice when commissioning public works of art.

      However. I would absolutely argue that art SHOULD skew peoples’ ideas about religion and morality and social norms. I think a pile of elephant dung CAN be art (coprolites, for instance, are just petrified dinosaur poop, and that shit is cool). The point here is that usually it is no one person who chooses what an installation of public art is going to be, and it is usually no one person who decides what the artist should receive for payment. Most public bodies should *welcome* an audit of their arts spending. I would be very, very surprised to find fiscal mismanagement or money laundering or the like when it comes to arts spending.

      “The good stuff”, keep in mind, was often reviled in its time, and often for centuries afterward. Van Gough’s work was laughed at when he was producing it. Only now do we see its brilliance. And another point – what you think of as garbage, someone else thinks is brilliant. The big hoop in Calgary – I think it’s pretty awesome. But a lot of people in Calgary think it’s garbage. I’m okay with that.

      There should be more money spent on arts and culture, and so I do take your point about spreading the wealth around. That is a point I’d like to see visited in this debate happening in Calgary – what kind of public artworks might have been doable if 4 artists each received $113,000, versus one firm receiving $450,000?

  3. My only problem with this (and the giant mountain of silver balls that they stuck in a park by the Whitemud) is that they paid all this money to artists who were not Canadian. Surely public money for public art should go to Canadian artists? Isn’t that the least we could do to support the arts in our country? I wouldn’t feel so bad about ridiculous art if someone local was paid to do it.

    1. Cori, that is a very good criticism, and one which I think more people need to raise.

      Most municipalities who have public art programs and policies make some kind of public call for proposals from local, national, and international artists. Artists themselves (or artist consortiums, or what have you) then make their proposals and usually, but not always, a jury decides on the winning bid. Now the trick is to find out what the terms of those public calls are.

      We as citizens can petition our civic leaders to only accept calls for public art from local (regional, provincial, national) artists.

      The other side of this argument, however, is that by commissioning artworks from international artists, we are opening up trade routes and export opportunities for Canada’s own artists to enter the international scene. It’s an international profile thing to some people, I think.

      Now, I would very much like to see every region with a public art policy have some kind of requirement that of X% of public art installed in public spaces, Y% must be commissioned from Canadian (and/or provincial and/or regional) artists. Kind of like what the CRTC does with Canadian Content in broadcasting. Whether or not that will ever happen, I don’t know. But the place to start with this kind of thing is definitely in petitioning your civic government representatives to consider these things when the policies are up for renewal. I think you make a strong case.

    1. So here’s my question, Marina:

      Where would people go in Calgary to view these awesome works of art? Since Calgary doesn’t have a public gallery. NOT THAT I NEED TO KEEP HARPING ON THAT.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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