Archive for the ‘Quality of Art’Category

What are we missing as we rush through life?

Gene Weingarten

Washington Post Columnist Gene Weingarten

My friend and colleague Caroline Ramersdorfer recently sent me this interesting description of a social experiment originally reported by the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Gene Weingarten. You can read his original story Pearls Before Breakfast in the online edition of the Washington Post.

In Washington , DC , at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes.  During that time, approximately 1,070 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.  After about 3 minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing.  He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule.

About 4 minutes later:
The violinist received his first dollar.  A woman threw money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

At 6 minutes:
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

At 10 minutes:
A 3-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly.  The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the whole time.  This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent - without exception - forced their children to move on quickly.

At 45 minutes:
The musician played continuously.  Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while.  About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace.  The man collected a total of $32.

After 1 hour:
He finished playing and silence took over.  No one noticed and no one applauded.  There was no recognition at all.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world.  He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.  Two days before, Joshua Bell sold-out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him play the same music.

Joshua Bell in the Metro

Joshua Bell plays in the Metro

This is a true story.  Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the D.C. Metro Station, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities.

This experiment raised several questions:

  • In a common-place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?
  • If so, do we stop to appreciate it?
  • Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:
If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made……

how many other things are we missing as we rush through life?

Watch some of Joshua Bell’s Metro Performance


01 2011

Picasso at the Seattle Art Museum

I saw the Picasso exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum

Picasso at the window

yesterday. I can say that without question it is the finest exhibition I’ve ever seen at SAM in the past 25 years.  It is truly a blockbuster and if you are living in the Seattle metro region it is a must-see. It is extensive, comprehensive, and beautifully displayed, giving the viewer  a broad spectrum of the massive productivity of this 20th century master. There is even a glimpse into the inspiration of a few of his large scale public works.

There were a couple of quotes of his displayed on the walls that I thought were particularly poignant for all art making and for public art practice too.

“ Art is not made to decorate rooms. It is an offensive weapon in the defense against the enemy.”

“Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.”   Pablo Picasso

When I think of his infamous painting “Guernica”, one of the great anti-war masterpieces of all time, these quotes resonate for me.


12 2010

Larry Rivers Sculpture and Building Codes for Public Art??

"Legs" by Larry Rivers in Sag Harbor NY

"Legs" by Larry Rivers in Sag Harbor NY

The Wall Street Journal just printed an interesting article by reporter Lucette Lagnado on a controversial Larry Rivers sculpture in Sag Harbor, recipe NY. The sculpture is of two nude legs, female, standing over 16 feet tall and is displayed outside of a private residence for the public to “enjoy”. It has become controversial for several reasons, but the biggest legal issue is whether it must subscribe to local “building” codes. The building codes in that upscale NY town state that structures above 16 feet tall must be permitted and approved by the historic and landmark committees. This work would not likely be approved. So must publicly displayed art subscribe to the building codes??

My view is that building codes per se are meant for habitable structures, like houses, stairways, electrical circuits, foundations, etc and are designed to protect the residents and the public from disasters like fires, earthquakes, storms and the like, as well as shoddy construction, so they require review by engineers for structural integrity.  Technically speaking, a sculpture does not fall into the habitable structure category. However, it is very common practice in the genre of art that is displayed in publicly accessible areas to require a structural review by a licensed and certified engineer, to ensure that there is no danger present to a public audience and passersby. So if this Rivers sculpture could fall apart due to weak welds in high winds for example and land on a pedestrian sidewalk, it would be wise to have it evaluated by a structural engineer and certified for its safety and integrity. This also serves to relieve the artist, and/or commissioning agent or owner, of liability should something devastating occur, assuming the work was built to designed engineering requirements.

Larry Rivers

Larry Rivers

Alternatively, a “sculpture code” or “public art code” could be adopted by a city that outlines the engineering process and requirements that may be unique to public artwork, but this has not occurred in many cities, if any, to my knowledge. Some arts commissions have adopted across the board structural review guidelines, but they are not code. This seems like a fair solution, since artwork is usually not “lived in” the way a building is inhabited and would demand different criteria for approval. But there may be some issues that will require flexibility on the part of the evaluating engineers, since art is always unique in form and structure, and not always an isolated object but sometimes could be interactive and environmental or even architectural in nature.  A thorny issue brought to light…..

You can see a video interview with Wall Street Journal reporter Lucette Lagnado.

You Call graffiti art? What’s vandalism? What’s “Guerilla Art”?

Graffiti in Amsterdam

Art or vandalism? Photo by Dohduhdah

Is graffiti public art? My answer to that is that some graffiti can be artful, especially if it carries a high energy, emotional or socio-political message. This stuff represents a generation that wants to state an anti-establishment message or attitude by violating public or private spaces and places. Sometimes this type of expression can be a powerful outlet. But is it responsible and respectful? No, not if it damages someone else’s property.  Another type of graffiti called “tagging” is usually less artful…and merely serves to put the graffitist’s signature on the property, like a dog declaring turf by peeing on it. The bottom line for me is that if either of these occurs in an unsanctioned manner on public or private spaces it is disrespectful and should be discouraged. This is especially true when graffiti occurs on other art objects.

Jean Michel Basquiat

"Untitled" by Jean Michel Basquiat

An interesting solution to this problem is occurring in many cities around the world. I first encountered it in St. Petersburg, Russia, where city officials allocated a large brick courtyard surrounded by blank walled buildings to be a ‘free expression zone’. Anyone could come into the space and graffiti the walls with any images, messages, and other graphic symbols. In this space, anything goes, and one would not get arrested for defacing property. It provides an outlet for the emotion that compels graffiti artists. Anywhere else in this beautiful city, however, and graffiti is illegal and subject to jail time.

FYI some graffiti artists have gone on to make successful careers as professional artists harnessing their imagery on painted canvas. Examples include Basquiat and KOS.

Monolith in Seattle, New Year's Day 2001

Guerilla art is a horse of a different color. This kind of art is also unsanctioned, and it usually occurs in public spaces, appearing as a surprise, serving as provocateur, then disappearing without a trace. Its roots are in performance art, and often involve live artists and collaborators in the streets or city plazas and parks. An example of this is the aforementioned giant monolith that appeared on a hill in a Seattle park on New Year’s Day 2001 (referencing the movie “2001 Space Odyssey”), then a day or two later, it disappeared and then reappeared on the little island in the middle of Green Lake, no mean feat since it was made of steel and weighed over 1000 lbs.Ball and Chain, Hammering Man

Another guerilla artwork Seattleites may remember is the gigantic ball and chain that appeared on Borofsky’s Hammering Man at the Seattle Art Museum early on a Labor Day morning. These artists were adding a message to an existing artwork, and did so with such respect for the original artwork that they even placed rubber protectors inside the chain’s ankle cuff to prevent the original’s paint from scratching. I enjoy this kind of quick, temporary intervention, especially when the guerilla artists show respect for the place or piece. And especially if the guerilla work provokes thought about social, ethical, political, or aesthetic mores. Guerilla art can be an effective wake up call to our culture and society. Many artists enjoy making this kind of art because it involves direct interaction with the public in the streets, instead of the very private interaction with materials in the studio.


11 2010

Art, Craft, Design, and Decoration: My Definition

These definitions and meanings often overlap, troche and not everyone is going to agree with my definitions. But for the sake of understanding my show and blogs, thumb I’ll offer some interpretations.

“Craft” is the easiest one in my opinion. It means how well the artwork is made and it implies virtuosity with techniques and materials. Something that is “beautifully crafted” usually means that the craftsman has a true mastery over the materials and the processes to create a given object.  But craft does not always mean beautiful. Something could be well-crafted, but in a rugged, rough-hewn way, or something could be crafted in an intentionally “ugly” way. The level and type of craft needs to match the concept or idea of the artwork. Or a work could simply be about the craft in and of itself; these works are crafts and not art, in my definitional spectrum.

"Seattle Tulip by Tom Wesselman

"Seattle Tulip" by Tom Wesselman

“Decoration” is easy too. Decoration implies something that is simply meant to please the eye…something pretty or nice to look at. Something that might give some pzazz to an object, building, or place. Decoration does not provoke or stimulate intellectual thinking…it is merely visual eye candy.  Unfortunately some public art is really decoration. The giant tulip sculpture in front of a bank in downtown Seattle is an example of corporate decoration (a status symbol) in my opinion. Wallpaper is decoration.

Chrysler Building, NYC

Chrysler Building in NYC, photo by ahisgett

“Design” starts to get complicated. Design often refers to the building arts such as architecture, furniture, landscape, bridges, etc. Part of the meaning implies a functional or structural component, but it also includes aesthetics, or visual comprehensiveness (or audio, or motion, or ….). Good design implies that care has been exercised to consider and integrate all aspects of a project, and often involves creating a form to solve a functional purpose as well as creating a meaning and appreciation for the object or structure. So buildings, bridges, benches, bus stops, etc can be thoughtfully planned, innovative, and carry a concept. Some of my favorite examples of good design are the Chrysler Building in New York City, and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. I’m also a big fan of Calatrava bridges and Stickley furniture. And Porsches and Harleys.

Questions by Barbara Kruger

“Art” is the hardest of all to define. Suffice it to say that good art involves craft and design, plus it infuses the object or place with a thoughtful or provocative idea or concept. The idea could entail a human figure in a memorial context (one of the oldest and most prevalent forms of art…think of the Lincoln Monument in Washington DC, Lincoln seated in deep and troubled contemplation), or it could be an abstract idea created to capture an emotion or feeling (e.g.  Jackson Pollack paintings), or it could involve a socio-political idea where the artist is serving as a provocateur of morality

Barbar Kruger

or ethics or cultural constructs (such as Barbara Kruger’s gigantic billboards dealing with feminist issues). The spectrum of concepts is probably infinite. My own Fin Project : From Swords Into Plowshares deals with turning weapons and warships into Art, as another example.

The level of craft must be just right too, to match the concept…too “crafty” and it becomes about the technique more than the idea; not crafted enough and the concept is not portrayed effectively. The works, if in the public, must be structurally designed to withstand weather, traffic, earthquakes, and other interaction and abuse. One of my public art colleagues even had to design a cast bronze wall relief sculpture for a Boston subway station so that all the surfaces and planes drained downward….to prevent urine from the homeless transients in the subway station from collecting, creating a health hazard, and discoloring the patina! So the best public art is going to be well designed, well crafted and presents a rich and multi-layered concept.


11 2010

Quality in Public Art?

How do you determine quality in Public Art?

John with Hammering Man by Jonathon Borofsky

Is this art?

I use three criterion to determine if a public artwork is of the highest quality: engaging form; its relation to its site and community; and layers of meaning.

First, the form of the work must be engaging in some way; either beautiful (whatever that is?!), provocative, sensuous, dramatic, subtle, or attractive. These are incredibly subjective values and everyone will have their own basis for this aesthetic decision. Sometimes sheer large scale causes it to be engaging; sometimes it is intriguing because it is subtle and the joy of its discovery makes it engaging. Sometimes its color does it; or its materials. Or its structure is intriguing, like Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” (see episode 1).  Or sometimes it is recognizable historic figures like Mount Rushmore, which also relies on scale and location. But the bottom line is that it must eventually be noticed by the public and it draws the audience in to learn more. This is what I call the first step in my theory “Public Art’s Avenue of Accessibility”. …the first level of public access to the understanding of the art.

Secondly, I look to see how the work engages its site, both physically and conceptually. Does it fit well into the parameters of its plaza, hillside, sidewalk, building façade, etc.  We call this “site-specificity”. Does it feel comfortable in terms of scale, materials, design, aesthetic,  structure, and public safety. Or is it meant to be confrontational and aggressive in its location, meant to challenge the viewer and make him/her ask questions about the work or site. Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” in New York City is an example of this kind of work, but ultimately failed as public art because it was removed from its site due to public protest.

Then how does it relate to its site conceptually? Does it refer to the history of the place, or its community values, or the social traffic patterns of the site? “Dance Steps on Broadway” (See video promo with “Dance Steps on Broadway) in Seattle is a good example of this.  Most importantly, does it “give voice” to that particular community, place, or environment in some intriguing way? Let’s call this “socio-specificity”. Public art that does this in an effective way usually becomes a positive symbol for a community.  These are additional points of “access”.

Finally, I look for layers of meaning in a given public artwork that unveil themselves over time and continued interaction with the work. Like an onion getting peeled, more and more layers become evident as you reach the core. The art educated learn how to peel and discover these layers quickly; the general public may need more time. But good public art contains layers of meaning intended by the artist that reveal themselves to anyone who is willing to engage and learn about the work.  In other words, there is always “more to public art than meets the eye”. ..and these layers are accessible to anyone willing to do the discovery work.

Hammering Man in Frankfort, Germany

"Hammering Man" by Jonathan Borofsky in Frankfort

To use Seattle’s “Hammering Man” again as an example (one of my favorite pieces in my hometown), first its massive scale draws you in. It’s big at 60’ tall, black, and its kinetic…the actual physical movement draws the viewer right in! It was designed to fit perfectly into its small plaza site, intending to dwarf the viewers and passers-by, and making him heroic in our eyes. Its first layer of meaning is that it clearly represents the worker, hammering away 20 hours a day every day. It celebrates the worker in our society.  Second layer: but he doesn’t have a name, he’s only got a number…he is the anonymous worker that has a cold brand and no name.  The sculpture is a memorial to the anonymous laborer that is the glue that holds our society and economy together. Perhaps everyone can relate to him? Then, third layer, if you dig a little deeper and investigate the artist’s intentions, you would discover that he is not the only “Hammering Man” of gigantic scale that he has made. In fact the artist intends to set them up all around the world, in a global series,  that speaks to the worker in different societies and economic structures. Already there are Hammering Men in Japan and Germany, for example.  So this work is part of a global work that celebrates workers around the world!  Lot’s of layers…get it?!  (Watch a video segment from the program You Call That Art?! about Jonathan Borofsky’s “Hammering Man.”)

Of course artists also want you to bring your own interpretations to any given public artwork. Artists love it when you come up with your own interesting perspectives. So it’s not a closed question with one right answer. There are many interpretations that can simply be inspired by the artwork.  Maybe you relate to the Hammering Man for personal reasons, let’s say he reminds you of your grandfather who was a carpenter. It’s great that you would have such a personal connection to the artwork! Our show will share other people’s interpretations and reactions to various pieces, and I request that you share your views on our blog and Facebook sites. I look for form, relation to site, and meaning…what do you look for? Let’s hear from you!

Watch a promo from the public TV program You Call That Art?!


10 2010