Don’t believe it, Sarasota. Getting called a “tough crowd” this week by your local newspaper over your public art controversies shows ignorance. Sarasota doesn’t have a franchise on this. Public art brouhahas in other cities abound.
Even in New York, the art capital of the world, controversy has raged. A biggie was Richard Serra’s abstract sculpture Tilted Art that was removed from its perch in Manhattan’s Federal Plaza after a majority vote at a public hearing. One hundred and twenty two people testified and 58 of them voted in favor of removing it, even despite Serra who contended, “I don’t think it is the function of art to be pleasing, Art is not democratic.”
Then there was the fracas in Detroit over “Monument to Joe Louis” by Robert Graham. The monument – a cast bronze 24-foot-long forearm with an ungloved clenched fist thrust through a 24-foot-high pyramid of four steel beams, known as “The Fist” – prompted immediate furor. Detroit saw it as a reminder of urban violence in the city – often referred to a as “Murder Capital of America.” (By the way, “The Fist” still stands in Detroit and – get this – it’s now featured on the city’s website as a tourist attraction).
Then there was the wrangle over the Chicago Picasso. An untitled 50-foot-tall Cubist sculpture by Pablo Picasso installed in the ‘60s in Daley Plaza caused instant derisions. A City Council alderman sought an immediate replacement. Yet, it still stands and has become a Chicago landmark, a popular meeting place and a site for public events. It even made the movies, the 80’s movie The Blues Brothers.
The moral of the story? Give public art a chance – a time for second looks, second thoughts and yes, bickering. Far worse than complaining about public art is vandalizing it. I’m thinking of nine plaques of a 40-panel semi-abstract rendition of human faces by sculptor Frank Colson that was ripped from their moorings at the Sarasota Visual Art Center in ’99 – smashed and left in fragments. And a short time before that, half of the spotlights for the sculpture garden at the center were kicked away and stomped on, throwing the art into darkness at night. And a month before that, plastic markers, which told sculpture garden visitors what they were looking at, were cracked off their metal stands.
And in case you think art vandals are those who don’t appreciate art, consider the students from Ecole des Beau-Arts who once felt so repelled by a Man Ray collage that they riddled it with bullets.
So when it comes to public art, whether in Detroit, Chicago, NY or Sarasota, controversy is good way to go – good for cities, good for art.
Here’s to the dustups.
Former visual arts critic for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Bradenton Herald, former New York City art teacher and longtime award-winning art and architecture critic for U.S. and overseas publications, is referenced in “Who’s Who in American Art” and “Who’s Who of American Women” and currently writes as the St. Petersburg art Examiner and National art Examiner. Altabe has written several books including “Art Behind the Scenes” (100 painters in and out of their studio) and “Sculpture off the Pedestal” (25 sculptors in and out of their studio). Both available at Amazon.com.