Apr 9, 2005

Commodity culture and public art:

Okay, I admit it: I'm an art snob, but I come by it honestly. My mom is a painter and doing the starving artist thing in the 1970's meant baby-sitters were a luxury she couldn't afford, so I started attending openings and art parties even before I started pre-school. As a result, I'm as opinionated about art as I am academically unqualified to comment. So, with that in mind, you can take my rant with a grain of salt.

Last summer, the city was over-run by a public art exhibit called "Orcas In The City". Setting aside, for a moment, the fact that it was a worthy and successful charity event Orcas in the City seems like a perfect example of what is wrong with public art right now.

One time I was out in a small boat when we were surrounded by a pod of orcas. Wait, surrounded makes it sound like a bad thing which it wasn't. It was an incredible, scary, and exhilarating experience to sit in the boat and see these large whales swim by. A mother and her calf crested less than five feet from where I was sitting. The calf was almost as big as its mother, and yet they were still swimming so close, side by side, as to be touching. One large male rose half way out of the water , turned 360 degrees and without a splash, slid back into the ocean. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, and you'll just have to take my word for it - I'm not a very sentimental person, and I'm not the sort of person who imbues wild animals with some sort of deeply spiritual essence. A whale is a whale, not a god. But even so, they are incredible creatures.

So, when I saw this:
I admit I was a little bit appalled. In case it is difficult to make out the detail in this small image, this Orca (in the city) is wrapped in a checkered flag and wearing a visor. It is also adorned with Siemens Mobile, Mercedes, and WestJet logos. And this wasn't a one off! No, the public library had an orca painted and stuffed with books.

The downtown campus of my university had an orca that had been spray-painted and distressed to look... to look like... I know, to look like the contents of your pencil case exploded all over a piece of jet trash.

Maybe it's just me, but it is kind of ugly, no?

I'm telling you, these things were *everywhere*.

All summer.

And aside from one or two notable examples such as:

They were mostly pretty ugly:

This one for example looks like the side of a souped-up 1979 Ford Econoline van with airbrush detailing. You know, the kind with the bumper sticker that reads "If this van be rockin' don't be knockin'".

So, now that I've lambasted the hidiosity that was Orcas in the City, I feel compelled to add that it did raise $400,000 for an important children's charity which is enough to make me feel a little ashamed for hating it so much. On the other hand, with art funding slashed to the bone all over, and public art a rarity (especially) in this city, I was disappointed that such a worthy cause wasn't supported in a more meaningful way. Perhaps with installations that would add to the beauty of the city year after year. Or, and here's a revolutionary thought, what if the artists were encouraged to develop innovative pieces to be auctioned off, rather than blank slate fiber-glass orca "canvases".

Of course, my proposal could have been worse. One can only imagine what some of those artists would have concocted with a free reign to do as they pleased.
On the other hand, it might also have been more meaningful. But, on the other hand again, maybe this is what the masses really want. Crazy painted Orcas to replace the ones who are dying out in our waterways. Suburban pseudo Hip-hop Orcas that have been spray painted to look like Ghetto Orcas. Elvis and library Orcas. Sploded pencil case orcas. Hockey jersey Orcas.

Mercedes Benz Orcas.

Because it doesn't really make you think. There are no hard questions being raised by an exhibit like this. No discussion on the state of our waterways and the effect pollution and shipping are having on the real live Orca stocks. No debate about graffiti, no debate about literacy. Nothing. And if it does make you think, it makes you think bad thoughts about the state of public art. Which is too bad, because I love public art.

As a side note, several months ago I was walking through an old neighborhood I used to live in. Some time in the early 1980's this local guy created this persona, "I Braineater."
Jim Cummins was pretty famous around here, especially in punk rock circles.

Years ago, actually decades ago, either Jim Cummins, or a talented imitators stenciled an I Braineater image and logo onto this section of the Georgia viaduct, right near the on-ramp. Over the years it got covered up by shrubbery which was pruned sporadically. I used to walk under that part of the viaduct almost every day on my way to work, and when it was exposed, that little bit of graffiti was kind of comforting. A little bit of consistency in a young city that is constantly evolving and re-inventing itself.

One day, I was on my way to work and I noticed that along the bridge, someone (city works crew?) had brushed paint remover across all the tags and graffiti on the viaduct. The next morning on my way to work, I walked under rather than over the bridge, and sure enough, I Braineater had been dissolved. All that was left was some orange sticky goo.

I was actually upset. Maybe because it reminded me of my mis-spent youth. Or, maybe after almost 20 years, I just assumed the statute of limitations had run out and I Braineater's art would survive behind a hedge until the viaduct came down. That was public art. That was public art worth preserving. That was real spray-paint on real concrete. Not airbrushed fiber-glass orca.

In highschool my friend Rob spray painted a pedestrian tunnel with a large "no nukes" sign and a screaming face with a mushroom cloud behind it. It survived for ten years.

There is still one cold war era public art project that I know of. It is a stencil of a bomb, in red, with NATO written on it.

Maybe the NATO bomb, and I Braineater didn't raise money for charity. Maybe in the end the graffiti, even if it does survive long enough to be considered an antique, is still just vandalism. And I'm not suggesting that instead of orcas, the artists should have tagged the sides of buildings. But I wonder if in 20 years anyone will remember those orcas as emblematic of our current era. Somehow I don't think so. And that, ultimately, is what makes them so worthless - despite their $400,000 combined purchase price.

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