I’ll say this for the proposed digital screen they want to mount at the corner of Mass Ave and New Jersey: It keeps us from thinking about the semi-suburban architecture developer J.C. Hart wants to hang it on.

I mean, really. Will Indianapolis never tire of putting up the generic, flat front boxes that pass for “mixed use” projects downtown?

Back in the ‘60s, they sang about building “little boxes on the hillside.” That was about suburban conformity. Today that idea has found its way into cities — and it has all but taken over downtown Indianapolis.

This latest iteration, dubbed Montage on Mass, features a $1 million screen on its most prominent corner, a “digital mesh canvas,” that some say will become the city’s most dynamic public art installation. Others fear it will be a particularly annoying billboard.

Odds are it will most likely be a bit of both.

There’s nothing new about the blurring of contemporary art and advertising. The conflation of the two has arguably been the defining theme in our culture for over 50 years. Artists stopped worrying about selling out a long time ago. Now they’re interested in trading up, being part of the action that defines global capitalism. Michelangelo had the Pope; today’s artists have corporate sponsors.

At the same time, advertising has increasingly appropriated the aesthetic tools and techniques of the fine arts. Ads seem more and more like waking dreams.

So whatever they decide to put on that screen, the effect will probably be arresting. And yes, it might even be beautiful.

Some critics have complained that placing the screen cheek-by-jowl with the Athenaeum and the Murat Temple will be incongruous. Maybe. But more often than not, the juxtaposition of new and old in urban settings creates a resonant glamour. European cities aren’t cool just because they’re old; it’s because of the way so many of them mash up history with history-in-the-making.

Indianapolis has been notably timid about adopting large-scale public art projects. This installation represents a step, albeit tentative, in a new direction.

I say tentative because what’s proposed still seems half-hearted. Eighty percent of the visual content will feature work by so-called emerging artists from Central Indiana; 20 percent will be commercial. This seems an all-too typical way to get cheap content — the old “providing exposure” gambit. Far better would be having the ambition (and nerve) to commission an international artist to create a major league work, as Chicago did with Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain in Millennium Park.

But that would represent a commitment to art that no one really wants to make.

At this point James Wille Faust’s experience at the Indianapolis airport is worth bringing up as cautionary tale. Faust created a sculptural installation that was displayed above one of the airport’s key escalators. It was eventually taken down, replaced with a video screen, when it was determined the location could be better monetized. The switch was justified as an opportunity for local videomakers.

Yeah, right.

I hope the screen wins the necessary approvals to go forward. I think it will provide downtown with something nifty to look at. Given the generic monotony of what passes for new architecture, this will be a relief.

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