Public art suffers from the same limiting factor as the music you’ll hear piped into a retail store: there’s no requirement that it be great, so long as it doesn’t offend anybody. This simple formula has virtually guaranteed that public art will nearly always fall within a rather narrow envelope, usually, but not always, mediocre. Chicago has some great examples of public art by well-respected artists (Kapoor, Calder, Picasso), but it is not without its problems.
Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,” embodies one principle of public art: the public can appreciate art so long as they misunderstand it. This sounds harsh and unfair, and of course it can always be argued that “there’s no wrong way to appreciate a work of art.” But it seems true that, in the public sphere, the distance between an artist’s intentions and the average viewer’s interpretation of it will be greater than in other venues. So Kapoor’s sculpture gets nicknamed “The Bean,” and serves primarily as a funhouse mirror backdrop for tourist’s snapshots.
In this role, ironically, “Cloud Gate” is an overwhelming success, as far as many stated goals of public art are concerned. It’s for everybody, it is a centerpiece of the city, huge numbers of people interact with and enjoy it…it is, in some ways, everything public art “should” be…from a politician’s perspective. A generous observer might call it a case of everybody enjoying a work of art in their own way; a cynic might call it a case of casting pearls before swine.
As an abstract form with a pleasing surface, made of a durable material and inviting a whimsical interaction, “Cloud Gate” hits a sweet spot for success in the eyes of the public. Calder’s “Flamingo” is similarly innocuous, and while it’s not quite so interactive as Cloud Gate, it does at least stay more or less out of the way: unlike Serra’s Tilted Arc, similarly placed in a public plaza surrounded by offices, which confronted viewers (with an “ugly,” rusted surface), divided the space rather than tucking itself into a corner or loitering overhead, and ostensibly provided a lurking place for muggers. The basic similarity of these three public sculptures (large abstract forms, made of metal, placed in public squares) and the wildly different responses to them on the part of the public (an almost giddy embrace of Cloud Gate, a cool indifference to Flamingo, and a vitriolic hatred that led to the rapid removal of Tilted Arc) shows the fine lines tread by public art in terms of their acceptance by a seemingly fickle public.
The frustration which artists working in a public sphere must feel, and which I as an observer feel when I read these accounts, stems largely from the public’s refusal to take public sculpture seriously. This is of course a product of the art professional’s perspective; we are often unconsciously guilty of expecting everyone to act as though they had an MFA, or at least adopted a hushed reverence for anything they were told is “Art.” This despite the fact that few of us pay similar reverence to other fields, what we might call hobbies, from dog shows to scrapbooking. There is a usually-unconscious double standard here, a belief that our interest (art) ought be treated differently from others (sports, stamp collecting, and the like) because “art is important.” It is this hubris which often leaves the public feeling alienated by the world of art, and leads to allegations of elitism, which are at times entirely justified.
Still, whatever the crimes of the art world in regard to art in the public sphere, it’s hard to overlook the juvenile irreverence with which public sculpture is often treated by the public. Posing with one’s reflection in Cloud Gate is a bit of harmless fun, about on par with “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but it doesn’t stop there. Witness the indignity of the sports paraphernalia which has been slapped onto the Art Institute’s lions and Picasso’s baboon-like sculpture. Adorning a piece of sculpture with an oversized ballcap interferes with its aesthetic function no less than installing Tilted Arc in the middle of Wrigley Field would interfere with the playing of baseball. Actually, I think it would make the game a lot more interesting. But such is the attitude of the public towards public art that this interference goes unnoticed, the entire idea that a work of art might be DOING something, providing an aesthetic experience, which might be interfered with, goes entirely unconsidered.
In interpretation, that is, the stuff that the park ranger does when she tells you about this-or-that woodpecker, it is said that the recreational visitor to a park or museum has an attention span operating at about a 4th grade level. That is to say, if you talk to tourists like they’re a bunch of 4th graders, they’ll have fun; anything more and it starts to feel like work. We can debate whether or not this is a good thing, whether it would be better if the public were more intellectual, but the point is, they’re not. Tourists want to act like a 4th grader, probably because that’s the most relaxed, fun state to be in, rather than trying to analyze everything like you’re going to have to write a term paper on it later. As art world professionals, it’s easy to forget that not everyone is as vested in intellectualizing everything we see.
So why the surprise, then, when the public’s first response, on seeing Seward Johnson’s sculpture Forever Marilyn, is to try to look up her dress? Why would you expect anything different from a public who put a Blackhawks helmet on Picasso’s sculpture in Daley Plaza, and Bears helmets on the Art Institute’s lions? Tourists on vacation, and locals on their day off, aren’t going to look at a piece of public art the way artists and critics are going to. As any interpreter will tell you, they’re going to act like a bunch of fourth graders, because that’s what people do when they’re on vacation. This situation isn’t going to change until or unless the mass culture embraces intellectualism as a virtue, until it becomes cool to think, to ponder, to take seriously not only works of public art but also historical landmarks and interpretive signs about migratory birds. Unlikely, to be sure, but this long shot is the only hope for a more mature public response to public art…and that, in turn, is the only hope for a public that will support riskier, more challenging, and in short, better public art.