Even Chicago can get public art wrong. The City of Big Shoulders is known around the world for its truly dazzling array of monumental public sculptures. Picasso, Miro, Nevelson, Calder and Kapoor — the Loop amounts to a museum without walls.
A number of years ago, someone got the bright idea to install decorative cows up and down Michigan Avenue. Each cow was gussied up by a different artist and, given the city's Stock Yards roots, the idea made a kind of historic sense. The result was a kind of psychedelic stampede running up and down the Magnificent Mile. People loved 'em.
But those cows were never meant to be permanent. So, rather than take them down and celebrate a great popular success, the city decided to have themes; every year or so it seems there's some new icon that's been chosen for artists to embellish. This year, in honor of Chicago's hosting the international Ryder Cup golf tournament, there are golf balls.
These golf balls are about the size of the so-called medicine balls slapstick comedians like the Three Stooges used to knock each other down with in old-time movies. Every one is mounted on a stubby tee. They are neither large enough to command attention, nor small enough to completely ignore. Many have been amateurishly painted with boosterish slogans that seem more like something you'd find along the curb in a town with a population of 3,000 than a city of 3 million.
The golf balls aren't just awful, they're worse: they actually manage to trivialize the really great public art Chicago has managed to amass over the past few generations. If the city's cultural affairs department is smart, it'll dump them all in the river and call the result an exercise in conceptualism.
You win some, you lose some.
Here in Indianapolis, when it comes to public art, it seems we almost always lose. The latest example concerns a sculpture, "Rock Steady Gravity Sketch" by one of the city's most talented artists, Artur Silva. Silva was commissioned to do the piece for an apartment building called the Avenue by the building's developer, Buckingham Cos. Located near the intersection of West 10th Street and Indiana Avenue, near the IUPUI campus, Silva's piece was intended to evoke the arts associated with the neighborhood's historic African-American community with the contemporary vibe projected by the urban university.
The sculpture, depicting a breakdancer pivoting on his head, was installed outside the Avenue apartments in August. It had all the makings of becoming a neighborhood landmark.
Then, in September, a university freshman, Xavier Somerville, was at a party at the Avenue. Apparently things got rowdy, police arrived on the scene. Somerville tried to jump from one balcony to another and fell five floors to his death.
Two completely unrelated things — Silva's sculpture and Somerville's awful accident — might have remained that way except for an enterprising Fox59 reporter's decision to juxtapose them.
In the hands of an able artist, juxtaposition creates a leap that enables us to discover meaning that might not otherwise be apparent. Unfortunately, one person's art is another's twisted logic. Thanks to Fox59, "Rock Steady Gravity Sketch" was turned from a statement about defying gravity into a ghostly reminder of a fatal fall.
Then there was nothing. Instead of giving Silva's sculpture a chance to become part of the life of its neighborhood, the building owner, Buckingham, took it down, as if the sculpture was responsible for Somerville's death.
Indianapolis seems to be developing a talent for this sort of thing. It wasn't that long ago the Airport Authority decided to remove James Wille Faust's installation, "Chrysalis," from its mooring above the escalator on the way to baggage claim. It seems the space the artwork occupied was too valuable; art, in this case, was trumped by advertising (plus, in a rather sour bit of irony, a short video by Artur Silva).
And there was the case of Fred Wilson's "E Pluribus Unum." Wilson, an internationally known artist of African-American descent made the mistake of appropriating the image of a freed slave from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Local African-Americans were offended by such a public reference to slavery and, rather than give the work a chance, they succeeded in scuttling it.
When it comes to public art, it appears a lot of folks in Indianapolis prefer nothing to something. This betrays our lack of experience in this field. The fact is that, in many cases, new works of public art can be off-putting at first. It takes time to get used to a new face on the block. Chicago couldn't stand its Picasso when it was originally installed. In time it became the city's trademark, the stuff souvenir key chains and snow globes are made of.
It seems we in Indianapolis are just too sensitive to deal with the period of adjustment most public art requires. I guess there's a method to this madness: it keeps our streets clean. Perhaps it also means our city will never be festooned with kitsch, like painted golf balls. But I doubt it.