Peace through victory - the American way.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Is Public Art For The Public Or For Critics?

The Port Authority of San Diego's plan to place a monument to the history of cannery workers has aroused criticism from a local art critic. In this story (click here) San Diego Union Tribune art critic Robert Pincus compares the Port Authority's choice to Muzak and describes it as suffering from "unwavering blandness."

The link to the article shows an artist's rendition of how the sculpture will look. It's an arch over a park sidewalk in which the arch is an arc of fish flying from a worker's basket on one base to the arms of another worker on the other. Looking on is a sculpture of a woman carrying a basket.

Pincus is highly critical of the Port Authority's past public art decisions for consistently approving art that is "innocuous" or "wholly trivial." He criticizes this harborside statue of a sailor embracing his family called "Homecoming" (click here for photos) and this display of dolphins called "Ocean Riders" at an entrance to a beachside park. (Click here for photos) One decision he approves is this exhibit by Gail Roberts at the airport called "Treelines." (Click here for photos.)

These exhibits vary in quality, for sure, but the quality of each is something about which reasonable minds could differ. To this reasonable mind, "Treelines" appears to possess high quality, "Homecoming" is loaded with feeling, the cannery workers tribute appears to be clever and fun, and "Ocean Riders" is forgettable.

How one could fault "Homecoming" is beyond me. The statue of the sailor reunited with his family cannot but produce emotion in the viewer, especially in this Navy town and in these times of war. The power of that image is strong. Perhaps it's not the most cutting edge of sculptures but that is not its intent. It's a sculpture in a park near the harbor where Navy ships are docked. It fits it's environment.

Likewise, the cannery workers' tribute may not capture the gritty essence that was the life of those workers from San Diego's past, but the sculpture is intended for a public park. Its fun and light tone is more fitting for a park than would be a tribute that more realistically portrays the lives of the cannery workers. And it serves the purpose of reminding people of San Diego's history.

The dolphin sculpture, "Ocean Riders" is not something I like much at all. But in its defense it is designed for the entrance of a beachside park for families. The somewhat pedestrian portrayal of the dolphins flying on the waves is not out of place in that venue. The sculpture is displayed to mark an entrance to a place where people will play, much like the dolphins are doing. It's hardly art, but it serves its purpose.

For art critics that is exactly the problem with much public art. To their standards it's often hardly art. Yet the purpose of public art is not to place art in public for art critics to appreciate. Its purpose is to add to the general public's enjoyment of the public space. These are two very different things. To the art critic, appreciating the art is what's important, and the public space is just a different kind of art gallery. To the public, enjoying the public space is what's important, and the art should fit into that space without dominating and detracting from it. Public art is not art for the sake of art. It shouldn't be judged by those standards.




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