Wednesday, November 25, 2009

'Art Stands Alone as Only Art'

'A profound lack of understanding of what public art should be.' The trash can above at the Patrick Henry shelter is a perfect example of nice art, lousy public works. It doesn't hold trash.<

A guy who has a reasonable reason for wanting to remain anonymous asked me to pass along the following thoughts of his about public art, as applies to the new bus shelter at Patrick Henry High School, mentioned here Nov. 15. I will give him his say without my own opinions, which, frankly tend toward his conclusion in the case of the shelter anyway. Here ‘tis:

"I don't think that art and certain public works projects can be joined because I think that public art and public shelter are absolutely mutually exclusive. This isn't to say that architecture can't be beautiful and inspring ... The City [of Roanoke] needed to hire someone to design and build a bus shelter ... This was a waste of public art money and a waste of transportation money. It's neither art nor functional.

"True art isn't architecture (or craft or therapy, etc.). True art stands alone for its own purpose of enlightening humanity, and whether it is William Faulker's 'Light in August' or Rene Magritte's 'The Six Elements,' art stands alone as only art.

"An artist serves humanity by producing a work that acts upon us through allegory. To be clear and brief on what art is, I defer to the definitions in the book The Philosophy of Art by Stepen Davies. A copy can be read here.

"To be clear, I am saying: Genuine art can't exist in another plane in a futile attempt to serve a second master. Architecture can be influenced by art, but not to the point where its function is diminished. Genuine art is just that, and if it's public art, it needs to stand alone. I find most public art lousy.

"This bus shelter is a $40,000 waste of public funds and its not exactly Ed [Dolinger's] fault. He's an artist with clear self-interests, and if the City of Roanoke wants to throw some money at him, he may not have the critical judgment to refuse the money. Hell, he's probably just trying to make his mortgage payments and will take what he can get. ...

"The problem starts with the City or because it made poor decisions, due to a profound lack of understanding of what public art should be and what public shelter should be and how the two should never be merged.

"We need a good architect or contractor on this project. It would have cost less and served us more. But, first we need clear public policy that defines what public art is and what public works are, and I don't think we should be merging the two."


  1. After the transparent ceiling accumulates enough bird droppings, will it become interactive art? Or does the rain have to semi-wash away the droppings first? Or can it only be interactive art after grafitti artists have at it?

    So many questions, so little art.

  2. (This is under my name because Christina could not post through all the passwords and IDs and e-mailed it to me to post for her)

    Well, one of the great things about art -- whatever form it may take -- is that it gets people talking, and that is certainly the case here. When it comes to art, one can rarely declare any particular viewpoint "wrong." I would simply invite observers of this and other public art projects, here or anywhere else, to keep an open mind. One of the things that distinguishes public art from other traditional art forms is that it is frequently intended to be interactive in some way -- to be touched or sat upon or to perform an additional function. That's one of the ways it enlivens its locality. Now, I admit that I am completely biased. I work for the City of Roanoke, and have enormous respect for Susan Jennings, who coordinates the city's public art program. Exposure to this program is one of the things that helped me develop a greater appreciation for the scope of what public art can be. This is why I say to keep an open mind. By the way, every marble statue in Italy (or pick your own cultural mecca) suffers regular assaults from bird droppings, acid rain, vandalism, etc. Is the solution to have no art in the public realm? I certainly hope not. Christina K

  3. I don't agree with the poster in his distinct separation of art and public works, though I agree that it can be challenging to merge the artistic and the practical (personally, I thing the rampant decoupling of artistic effort from practical human experience and craft has been a destructive force in art). In this case, I have no problem with the "bus shelter" as art, bird droppings at all. However I feel about its artistic merit, I laud the city for doing it.

    Don't consider it a waste of public art money, but I do consider it a waste of whatever money Valley Metro put into the project, and I think it was a wasted opportunity. As I said on the RIDE Solutions Facebook Fan page: "[I]f we're going to encourage transit use we have to consider the reality of the transit rider, and the poor person stuck here in the dead of winter will find scant relief in the sweeping lines of the sculpture."