“Art Chicago With Higher Ceilings.” This is how one Chicago gallerist, who preferred to remain anonymous, described Expo Chicago. Similarities are inevitable, not only those intrinsic to any Chicago art fair, but also those brought by president and director Tony Karman (vice president and director of Art Chicago from April 2006 to December 2010), as well as the familiar echoes of Navy Pier, where Art Chicago was held until 2004 and now the venue of choice for Expo. But by last year, Art Chicago was foundering, and this year went tits-up at the last minute. If Expo Chicago is going to succeed where Art Chicago ultimately failed (after, it should be added, over two decades of success), it’s going to have to have some major differences as well. Hopefully, Karman is putting his experience with Art Chicago to good use in running Expo.
Sales were “cautiously positive, if not glowing,” according to Julia Halperin’s article on Art Info (which includes some specific works sold, and prices, including at least three in the million-dollar range). Susan Snodgrass, writing for Art in America, quoted most gallerists as generally describing sales at the fair as “slow,” while describing others’ attitudes as “wait-and-see.” That’s the tone I felt at the fair as well: not ecstatic, but not the depressed gloom that had settled over Art Chicago by its final year, either. I asked a pair of friends who worked the fair as section coordinators if people were selling much at Expo. As soon as one had said, “In my section they weren’t,” the other exclaimed “In mine they were!” So it seems to have been something of a mixed bag.
Descriptions of Karman’s strategy make heavy use of the phrase “quality over quantity,” and Snodgrass agrees with the assessment, saying, “Overall quality was high.” Certainly there were plenty of well-known names on the walls of the bigger, blue-chip galleries, and gathered together the best (or at least the best-known) could have made for a respectable, if modest, exhibition at a small contemporary art museum.
This, though, is a narrow and safe definition of quality, and while it may sustain the sales necessary to carry Expo into another year, it runs the risk of trading artistic liberty to purchase a little financial safety. There was relatively little unexpected at Expo; that which was surprising was mostly in the seventeen or so spaces in the Exposure project, dedicated to newer galleries such as Chicago’s Andrew Rafacz Gallery and The Mission Projects. When these galleries sell work at a lower price point (compared to the sometimes seven figures the blue chip galleries list), and show artists with a less established sales record, it can be difficult to cover the costs of a regular art fair booth, and projects like Exposure may, if priced and juried right, attract an exciting energy to what could otherwise become an overly stodgy event.
It may be that calls for more experimental, risk-taking, emerging art are naïve, romantic notions rendered untenable by a harsh economic climate. It may be that in addition to the smaller scale, and undeniably more attractive venue, of Expo in comparison to Art Chicago’s final days (the ceilings really are higher; the place looks like a Zeppelin hanger, which is awesome), some of the more experimental, challenging projects, and more exciting (though less established) galleries, will find themselves cut from the equation by the cold, hard logic of economics.
The argument could be made that this is the reality of holding an art fair in Chicago. However, a counter-argument is being made in the form of the MDW (“Midway”) fair, which describes itself as “a showcase for independent art initiatives, spaces, galleries and artist groups, highlighting artist-run activities and experimental culture locally, nationally and internationally.” In many ways, it is everything that Expo isn’t (and Art Chicago wasn’t). There won’t be any metallic silver spaceships (Weather balloons? Inverted orange juicers?) hanging from colossal ceilings in a cyclopean amphitheatre, and glasses of wine aren’t likely to be delivered on sliver trays even at the Vernissage opening night event. Booth prices are lower, sales tighter, and the whole economics of the thing scaled down. There will be relatively few big-time European collectors, and no seven-figure sales, but instead there will be experimentation, unconventional spaces, and unexpected and surprising work.
MDW isn’t likely to rival Art Basel or Frieze in terms of dollar values moved, or the international reputation of the work seen. (Note that I said nothing here about quality; there has been some exceptional work at both of the previous MDW fairs.) MDW’s significant contribution to Chicago’s art scene is likely to remain “other than economic.” Rather, it can provide a counterpoint to the commercial fairs, showing what can be done even in tough economic times. It might even hope to lead the big boys by example, encouraging a more experimental and risk-taking attitude on the part of the big fair organizers, galleries, and collectors, to show and support the work of artists who are already performing the experiments and taking the risks.
The attitude, even among MDW’s organizers themselves, is that Chicago still needs a large, commercial art fair: Ed Marszewski, one of MDW’s organizers, posted on Facebook, “Well, you know it. Expo looks kind of fantastic. We’ve got something to be proud of.” Judging not only by the Facebook “likes” and comments, but also by the chatter in meatspace, the sentiment seemed to be shared pretty widely across a broad spectrum of Chicago’s art community, which had collectively exuded an aura of embarrassment over Art Chicago’s last few years.
Expo is almost certain to happen again next year, with some galleries already making plans to be there. (NewCity’s Robin Dluzen quotes Karman as saying, “There had better be a fair next year, or I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.”) Beyond that is anyone’s guess, and will depend in large part on next year’s sales. Ultimately, though, for an art fair to truly succeed, and avoid Art Chicago’s final demise, it must remain interesting, compelling, and relevant. This means new work by living artists, both established and emerging. When a fair plays it too safe, it courts disaster. Expo’s dealers may already have learned this lesson; Dluzen observes that “it was the contemporary, primary market art, not the Modern, secondary market art, that was being moved.” Hopefully, Karman will pay close heed to this lesson, and perhaps even follow, in part, the example being set by MDW. If Expo is to be Chicago’s chance at a lasting, world-class art fair, it’s going to have to be both profitable and exciting. That’s a delicate balance, and next year is going to be a demanding test of how well Expo strikes it.
Top Feature Image: Scan of rapid prototype of my head, made by Tom Burtonwood while we were working together at the Bad at Sports booth at Expo Chicago.
Much has been written about the role of firearms in American culture, with harsh critics and vehement advocates debating the positives and negatives of this role. Will firearms one day be seen as an antiquated relic of a more violent age, like the dueling swords of 18th Century gentlemen, or the daggers and knives ubiquitous on every medieval belt from peasant to noble? Or, conversely, will the individuals who make up our society learn to stop shooting each other, so that firearms can serve a positive role as tools for recreation, competition, and defense?
Only time will tell, but in the mean time, it remains undeniable that firearms have a significant, and contentious, role in American society. (Their role internationally varies nation-by-nation.) Anything this charged is fertile ground for artists seeking high-tension subject matter, and indeed artists have worked with firearms and firearm imagery in a variety of ways.
For the now-famous performance Shoot, at F Space in Santa Ana, California, performance artist Chris Burden had a friend shoot him in the arm with a .22 rifle. Sculptor Tom LaDuke made a sort of homage in his “A Self-Inflicted Burden,” a self-portrait in which he holds a pistol in one hand and examines a gunshot wound on his other arm. Reviewed in Artweek, Art In America, and The Los Angeles Times, LaDuke’s sculpture plays with Burden through its small scale, the self-inflicted nature of the wound (Burden’s wasn’t, at least not directly), and through the title’s pun.
New York-based, Louisiana-born artist Margaret Evangeline uses firearms as an art-making tool, shooting holes in sheets of mirror-polished stainless steel, powder-coated steel, and aluminum. (She also works in painting, installation, and video.)
Tom Sachs worked with guns in a couple of ways. His 1995 sculpture Tiffany Glock (Model 19), made of cardboard, hot glue, and ink, and his Hermes Hand Grenade are both non-functional, but Sachs and his assistants also made hand-made, fully-functional firearms. Some of these are listed on his website as art objects, but others were part of a clever scheme (some might argue performance) in which he and his assistants easily made improvised “zip guns” out of common, hardware-store materials, and sold them to NYPD’s gun buyback program at up to $300 apiece.
Alfredo Martinez is another artist who worked with firearms, and also came up with a novel money-making scheme. Martinez’ scheme didn’t have anything to do with making guns; he was making fake Basquiat paintings, for which he was arrested by the FBI. But in his more honest career as a painter, his own work consisted of large-scale paintings of cross-section schematics of firearms. This actually got him into trouble more recently, when he was traveling and working in China; a hotel maid found some of his drawings, which looked like blueprints, so she reported him to the police as a terrorist.
Other artists have of course worked with firearm imagery from time to time. Andy Warhol’s screenprint “Gun” treats its subject with the same cool remove with which he treated all of his popular culture sources. The Gao Brothers’ 2009 sculpture “The Execution of Christ” features a ring of Mao clones armed with SKS rifles executing Jesus. The examples are almost countless.
A longstanding sophism holds that a work of art isn’t finished until the viewer completes it by looking at it. This is more like a Zen koan than a debatable point, along the lines of “If a tree falls in the forest…” This notwithstanding, art’s relationship with its viewer plays a particularly interesting role when the art in question involves firearms, when art viewers are typically stereotyped as liberal and therefore (the stereotype holds) anti-gun.
The message, if the film has one at all – more guns, more fun. And in a throwback, old school kind of way, yeah. But in the heart of the carnage, it’s nearly impossible not to think of when big guns and cinema violence last met in the real world of Aurora, Colorado. Forget all the post-tragedy finger pointing between the gun lobby and the media coddlers, in “The Expendables 2″ both sides of the divide set aside their differences long enough to join forces and make a tag team grab at the box office.
This odd and oddly at ease symbiosis was plainly evident at the film’s Hollywood premiere when Chuck Norris made his onscreen cameo, a real life, unabashed, gun-toting conservative, entering frame at a stroll, wading through all the dead baddies he’s just laid out to the hoots and hollers and enthusiastic applause of a theater filled with Hollywood’s so-called liberal elites.
It is this same sort of interaction between audience and subject that creates the essential tension in artworks with firearms as their subject. Some people, upon seeing an image of a firearm, feel a frightened revulsion, others feel a giddy fascination, and of course there is a spectrum in between. Regardless of its orientation, this response, whether positive, negative, or ambivalent, is what makes firearms such an enduring subject (and sometimes medium) in works of art.
[Post-script: As part of our practice, Stephanie Burke and I take artists and other art-world participants to a shooting range and teach them to shoot firearms. We call this project Shooting With Artists. If you are a Chicago-area artist or other art professional, and would like to join us on a future shooting trip, shoot us an email at either my website, or Stephanie’s.]
I recently heard about, ordered, and read I Like Your Work: Art And Etiquette. (Edited by Paper Monument, Brooklyn NY. 2009.) The book consists of a series of questions and the answers to them given by a number of art world personalities, mainly but not entirely New York based. (Chicago artist, critic, and curator Michelle Grabner is among the contributors.) After finishing it, I thought about what I would have said, had I been posed the same questions. My answers follow.
What are the rules of etiquette for the art world?
I’d like to think it’s “Don’t be a dick.” In practice, some people get away with being dicks because they have enough power, influence, money, attractiveness, or other exchange commodities that they can essentially buy the freedom to be dicks. They get away with it insofar as people tolerate their behavior in exchange for access to these exchange commodities, but their reputations as dicks still circulate. It has been my experience that only a small minority (between 1-10%) of people in the art world are dicks.
Was etiquette foregrounded in any memorable situation?
A while ago, my wife Stephanie Burke and I noticed that at every gallery opening we went to, people were drinking wine out of disposable plastic cups and then throwing them away. Few if any showed any means of recycling. It occurred to us that those Lexan backpacking wine glasses they sell at REI, where the stem unscrews and stores in the bowl, would be a fun way to bring our own glass and save on waste. So we bought a pair and started bringing ‘em with us to the galleries. Most gallerists and their staff responded somewhere between “Oh, how cool! Where did you get those?” and “Huh, that’s weird, but okay.” But we did have a problem at one gallery. The bartender actually thought they were totally awesome, and confided that she’d been bothered by the fact that they didn’t recycle either. We checked out the show and enjoyed our wine, and then went to leave. The gallery owner stopped us at the door, saying “You can’t take those outside,” indicating our empty wine glasses. “Oh, these are ours,” I said, unscrewing the stem and locking it inside the bowl to demonstrate the principle, and how these were clearly not the disposable plastic cups the gallery used. “You brought your own glass? Actually…THAT’S ILLEGAL.” I think it was just a case of misunderstood intent; here we were trying to do our part to cut back on waste and save the planet all all that shit, because at heart we’re just a couple of nature-loving hippies from California, and this gallery owner probably thought we were up to no good, trying to get larger portions of wine or something. It was an awkward interaction but I’ve tried not to hold a grudge (see below re: “Tit For Two Tats”).
What customs or mannerisms are particular to the art world?
There are a lot of specifics, like what to do during a studio visit, or how to approach a gallery, or how to deal with collectors, but the one thing I’ve noticed is the role of niceness and/or sincerity. On one level there’s this veneer of civility where everybody acts nice towards everybody else because you never know when you’ll need them professionally, even if there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes shit talking. But on another level, there’s a hierarchy. It seems sometimes as though everybody loves a collector, likes a writer, and tolerates an artist. If you’re an artist, a gallerist or dealer is as good as a collector, as is an institutional curator, because they can get you in the show. I’ve worn all these hats in one capacity or another, and it’s really interesting how people have acted differently towards me in subtle ways. I should add here that almost everyone has been very civil, polite, and friendly towards me no matter what. Also, I’m sure I act a little differently around people with different roles in the art world, but I do make an effort to be friendly and respectful to everyone, whether or not they’re in a position to advance my career.
When does breach of etiquette play a role in embarrassing or awkward encounters?
There’s the above example about the wine glasses, of course; here’s another one: A well-known artist whose work I really like, but had never met, made some very caustic remarks about my wife and I, calling us “idiotic hipsters who eat their way through the openings and don’t know anything about painting.” This was in response to The Snack Report, a weekly column I authored for several years in which I went to every art opening I could but wrote criticism only of the refreshments. Following the principle of “tit for two tats,” that is, forgiving anyone their first breach of conduct (again, see below), I engaged in a very civil dialog with this artist, and despite the rude phrasing, actually did become convinced that the joke had gotten old and the Snack Report had become more of a chore than a joy for me, and stopped doing it. The artist and I became friends, I did a studio visit, and we’ve had some other professional engagements together. It would have been easy for me to take offense at the initial remarks but by turning the other cheek I’ve allowed us to have some very positive interactions.
How should people behave? What would be a maxim for conduct?
“Don’t be a dick.” Really, that should cover it, and any more specific rules merely serve to clarify this one overlying principle. For example:
- An artist’s opening is not the time for a critique.
- An opening is not a good time to talk to the gallerist about showing your work there. The gallerist is busy talking to collectors, trying to generate sales. Or at least they should be. This is also true of art fairs.
- If your friends are writers, they are under no obligation to write about your show. If your friends are curators, they have no obligation to include your work in an exhibition. As a curator and writer, I have certainly written about and curated my friends’ work, but never felt obligated to do so. If I curate a friend’s work into an exhibition, it is because their work fits the theme well; if I write about a friend’s show, it is because I have something to say about their work. Or, in either case, because it’s a paid gig.
- Show up when you say you’re going to. If you arrange to do a studio visit, for example, and then don’t show up, or cancel at the last minute, you’re saying “My time is more important than yours.” This is related to a power dynamic. We live in a world where artists court gallerists, not the other way around. A gallerist can cancel or reschedule a studio visit without any real consequences on his or her career, whereas an artist who cancels or asks to reschedule might very well find themselves quickly forgotten. But it’s a dick move either way.
- Conversely, respect other people’s time. Nobody owes you anything. People are busy. Pushing yourself on a gallerist to do a studio visit with you is making a big demand on their time. Act accordingly.
This raises, of course, the question of what to do when someone else violates the basic principle of “don’t be a dick.” I advocate a position I learned about while reading about memetics. Basically these researchers were running a computer simulation of game theory, in which computer programs were written to play a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which they could choose to either cooperate or betray one another. You can read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine to get the whole story in context, but the short version is, the first time they ran the game the winning program was “Tit For Tat,” which would cooperate until betrayed, but would retaliate if betrayed (that is, would not cooperate again with a player who betrayed it). So, the conclusion seemed to be that it’s best to be nice to others until they fuck you over, at which point you never trust that person again.
But, they ran a later version of the game, in which a new program was introduced, and proved even more successful than “Tit For Tat.” The new program was called “Tit For Two Tats,” and operated on this principle: It would forgive a single instance of betrayal, but not a second one. This was superior to Tit For Tat because it avoided getting into cycles of mutual betrayal with programs which were programmed to betray randomly, or merely occasionally. This seemed to map perfectly to social behavior in the art world: If someone says something rude to me, criticizes me publicly, or whatever, I’ll extend the olive branch, let ‘em know we’re still cool, and try to be their friend. In the few instances this has come up, it’s proven effective. It’s hard to punch someone who’s hugging you. (Although it occurred to me recently that it’s actually only a -4 penalty to attack while grappled.)
Has their been a shift in etiquette as the financial climate has changed?
To be honest, if it has, I haven’t noticed.
What constitutes bad manners?
The same stuff that constitutes bad manners in any context: Making people wait for you. Interrupting someone who’s in the middle of a conversation. Tying up the shitter for half a goddamned hour because you’re in there doing coke with your friends. (Everybody knows, sweetheart, you’re not fooling anyone!) Taking a couple of beers for the road out of the tub and sticking ‘em in your pockets. But…uh, nobody’s perfect.
Anyone who’s taken even a single 20th Century Art History course, or done a little reading on the subject, has gotten the simple, take-home version of the lesson of Duchamp’s readymades: that “it’s art because I say it is.” This sophism makes life a lot easier for artists (and perhaps more so, educators) who are faced with the question, “What is art?” Allowing ourselves to accept anything as an artwork, so long as its creator so designates it, simplifies the task of delineating the definition of art by eliminating them. It also opens up a vast field of inquiry, discovery, and creation, by allowing creative people access to modes of expression far beyond pencil, paint, and pixels.
Some challenge the openness of this definition, or rather this refusal to define, as too easy. Objections to it from our students, families, and friends outside the art world are either dismissed as naïve, or lead a conversation down the same rabbit hole of irresolvable issues as Thanksgiving dinner politics or dorm-room theology. It’s easy to forget that the question of what is, and what is not, art, is merely a matter of how we define a word. (Birds didn’t wake up feeling different, the day we decided to call them dinosaurs.) There is a sphere of human activity, encompassing everything from impractical object-making to practical experiments in philosophy, and since the activities in this sphere seem to share some traits, we’ve got to call it something, so we might as well call it art.
The cause and consequence of this open-ended definition of art has been a dizzying range of activities falling within its scope. Rirkrit Tiravanija prepares and serves Thai food. Marina Abramović played the knife game thirteen years before the android Bishop made it famous in the movie Aliens. Bas Jan Ader fell off of things, rode his bike into a canal, and ultimately tried to cross the Atlantic in a rowboat, after which he was never seen again. Here in Chicago, Stan Shellabarger goes on 12-hour walks celebrating equinoxes and solstices, and Chicago-based artist Meg Onli walked the length of the underground railroad.
In the name of art, I’ve participated in a Japanese-style game show, played basketball and volleyball, and received a small black tattoo of a dot. In each of these cases, I was a participant in a project created by someone else, but I’ve also done some weird stuff myself and called it art. Stephanie Burke and I had coffee sitting in the chairs people left to reserve themselves a parking spot in the winter, and we’ve taken artists to Indiana and taught them to shoot guns. These projects have been a lot of fun, and have given us the chance to explore avenues of expression other than my usual practice as a painter, and hers as a photographer.
There is a risk, however, inherent to this open, anything-is-art kind of world, and that is that if anything can be art, it is tempting to turn everything into art. If we accept ol’ Douchie’s claim that anything is art if an artist says it is, then an artist can, with a word, turn everything he or she makes or does into art. This power is irresistable. Like Ice-nine, it spreads throughout an artist’s life, turning everything it touches into art. Or at least, it can, if we let it. And it’s hard not to, especially for those of us who are constantly surrounded by and immersed in the art world. If we earn our livings by teaching or working at a gallery, odds are that we have precious few contacts or activities that are entirely separate from our lives as artists.
I would suggest here that it is essential to maintain exactly this kind of separation in some aspect of our lives. Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and as good a justification as any for why we do what we do, as artists. But when one’s workweek consists of making art, teaching art, and writing about out, and then the weekend rolls around and it’s a couple of nights of gallery openings, and maybe a barbecue or party with some art-world friends, art becomes the dust of everyday life. Not art itself, of course, but the infrastructure surrounding it, the networking, the applications, the paperwork…all of the stuff that comes along with the special thing that happens in the studio. And sometimes we need to get away from it all.
One of the advantages of teaching is the relatively open summer schedule it affords one, and both Stephanie and I take advantage of this freedom as much as we’re able. While we do some teaching at community art centers over the summer, we’re still able to get away quite a bit. This past May, we flew out to California and did some camping and backpacking in Yosemite National Park. Then we drove up to Humboldt, crashed an old friend’s party, and then drove across Oregon to Crater Lake, stopping on the way to play with some baby animals at a wild animal park. We explored some caves in Lava Beds National Monument, and then spent a week in Stephanie’s home town of Grass Valley. We wrapped up our trip in San Francisco, where we saw the metal band Rhapsody perform, and then got up the next morning to hike around Muir Woods.
We returned to Chicago for a week, then headed down to Missouri for a few days of camping, canoeing, shooting guns, and watching shitty zombie movies on a jagged rock in the middle of nowhere. We faced sunburn, ticks, and an adorable little scorpion, and ate a strange kind of pizza that is apparently a St. Louis specialty. We came back sore, filthy, and exhausted, but also washed free of the shimmering but sometimes stifling layer of pixie dust that builds up on the soul of we who live this particularly extraordinary life, as artists.
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.