"The surface is enough

I haven’t made a point of going out and tracking down every one of the 11 installations that the Arts Council has erected by British artist Julian Opie. So far, I’ve been content to let Opie’s works find me. For the most part, this has been a pleasant exercise.

I must admit I had my doubts about our town’s embrace of Opieana. That’s because the first piece I encountered was on the Circle. The mayor was posing there with a small cluster of Opie’s faceless mannequins for a television crew. Let’s just say this wasn’t the most felicitous of circumstances — for either the mayor or the mannequins. It looked more like the city was welcoming an extraterrestrial trade delegation than an exhibition of public art.

But then I found myself waiting to cross the street at the intersection of Meridian and Washington and my attitude experienced a happy overhaul. Looking south I saw a pair of golden electronic display panels, one on either side of Meridian Street, showing the figures of a man and woman walking. Their strides were fluid, trancelike and constant. They were slightly larger than the flesh and blood pedestrians that ebbed and flowed around them and, in most cases, a lot more graceful. Although these figures were less than monumental, they somehow managed to animate the streetscape where they were installed, momentarily skewing perspective, the passing movement of vehicles and people, even the sense of time.

One word immediately came to mind: cool.

At their best, the Opies seem to have this effect on people. A colleague who had just returned to the city after traveling in Europe for three weeks told me about how, driving to work on her first morning back, she encountered “Sara Dancing,” a four-sided LED panel of a woman languorously dancing, at another intersection by Circle Centre Mall. “It made me glad,” she said.

When Daniel Pink spoke to the annual gathering of this city’s cultural movers and shakers at the Start With Art luncheon in September, he emphatically stated that the arts were not “ornamental,” but essential to future business success. Pink, whose new book is called A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, is the latest business guru to spread the gospel that, in the new, “conceptual” economy creativity will be key. “To flourish in this age,” he writes, “we’ll need to supplement our well-developed high tech abilities with aptitudes that are ‘high concept’ and ‘high touch.’ High concept involves the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to come up with inventions the world didn’t know it was missing.” These are qualities, Pink says, that can’t be outsourced. “Any job that can be reduced to a set of rules is at risk.”

At some point — I think it was when Jesse Helms deliberately conflated art with advertising, going after Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs on behalf of American taxpayers who took umbrage at supporting an exhibition they were told promoted Mapplethorpe’s kinky lifestyle — arts advocates started finding ways of saying that art was good for reasons that had less to do with art than with other things. So we were told we needed art to improve education, revitalize neighborhoods and sell our cities. Meanwhile, the old notion of art for art’s sake was thrown overboard, a relic of a rebellious modernism whose defiance seemed out of synch with a political and economic environment where the audience, not the artist, was in charge.

But as I watch Opie’s electronic figures striding forever across the surface of an Indianapolis afternoon I have to wonder if maybe, when it comes to art, we’ve finally turned a corner. If this stuff isn’t ornamental, if it’s not art for art’s sake, what is it? Like Warhol, Opie is about surfaces. He uses the tools of urban advertising to fill our collective space the same way advertising does, except, in his case, the product is the sensation you get when you realize that nothing is being promoted or, better yet, that no one is trying to make you feel inadequate.

“Underneath what appears to be a straightforward, almost comic-strip use of line and color lies an exploration of the role of the individual in an era of mass production and an alluring visual language that marries the banality of street-signs with the slickness of high culture.” That’s Opie according to Mindy Ross, director of public art for the Arts Council, in high master’s thesis mode. This is the kind of justifying eloquence that fetches the funding to bring us works like these, and that’s fine.

I doubt, however, that there really is an “underneath” to what Opie does. At any rate, I can think of more edifying ways to spend my time than trying to find it — and that’s fine, too. In the end, art really is its own reward. If Julian Opie and his enablers at the Arts Council bring us any closer to understanding this, I’m grateful. Maybe it means we’ve finally grown up enough to be playful.

And that would be very cool.