Marketing public art: PC or not PC?

This just in from Steven Kaplan.

NYCWaterfallsEliassonBklynBridge.jpgI recently attended a press conference for Olafur Eliasson’s New York City Waterfalls, which will be realized from July through October 2008 in four East River locations, including the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage and Governors Island. Presented by the Public Art Fund, these monumental, 90 to 120-foot tall free-standing installations of cascading water will be Eliasson’s first major public project in the city, and promise to continue his alchemical reference to natural elements and his abiding interest in the environment as both raw material and metaphor. They will also coincide with exhibitions of his work at MoMA and PS 1.

It’s hard to imagine an artist “greener” than Eliasson. In several previous outdoor interventions, he even dyed a number of rivers that very color — to be sure, with a safe, non-toxic chemical. Still, constant reference to the Waterfalls being “carbon neutral”, even from Mayor Bloomberg, made it seem as if this was the major selling point, as important as the work itself. It led a number of us at Artworld Salon to consider the almost compulsory political correctness employed in the marketing of public art.

We are happy the project satisfies the demanding yardstick of public accountability: that it will neither harm the environment, place undue demands on the electrical grid during peak summer months, nor suck fish into its vents. All worthy aims. And not to be curmudgeons or ecological slobs, but if art first needs to satisfy all potential issues of public safety, acceptability and taste, what might eventually be left? A freeze-dried lump of innocuous, biodegradable tofu, available in white, black, brown, yellow and all the varying shades of polyglot New York?

When The Gates came to town, the city was quick to declare that it would cost the taxpayers nothing. Christo and Jean Claude planned to foot the bill entirely with sales of prints and drawings. Now we are assured of no carbon imprint, no ecological bill. Of course we do not advocate despoiling the environment. But at what point will the costs of art be acknowledged and embraced as an intrinsic part of its subtlety, its brinkmanship, its elemental mission to confront all of existence? Not just those aspects deemed politically orthodox or acceptable to the largest number of constituents.

In other words, will the marketing of public art always be the handmaiden of compromise? Any thoughts?

4 thoughts on “Marketing public art: PC or not PC?”

  1. I always think of Art as a perfect, unconflicted, market phenomenon. The Artist ideally produces what he/she needs to produce without regard to outside input (e.g. demands to be green) and the viewers / buyers buy what they like, ideally without knowing too much about the artist and his/her motives, being solely moved by the oeuvre itself. Setting PC parameters (be green, no sex, no offending Islam, whatever) therefore corrupts that perfect exchange, and should have no place in curating or critiquing.

    Of course there is no such thing as a perfect market and no such thing as “no outside input”. Every artist is influenced by both their inner demons and their outer environment. And that includes the political mood of the moment and the social mores of the society in which he/she operates. Similarly, the interest of the viewing public is influenced by both personal interests and the fashion and fads of the current zeitgeist. So it is hard to complain too strongly about the marketing departments of this or that museum or gallery or other public Arts organisation, using those same fads to draw people into an exhibition.

    Where it becomes an issue, I suppose, is when the fad or fashion starts to influence what is purchased or commissioned, and thus what the artist is encouraged to produce. At that point one could argue that the artist ceases to be an artist and becomes merely another producer of commercial products designed to draw people into a building to justify said building’s existence.

    In the case of Eliasson it seems his interests are simply in tune with the mood of the moment. His environmental concerns pre-date this exhibition. But any artist whose work too closely matches a social fad will be open to accusations of market influence; and a resulting lack of integrity. Unless, of course, his message is fresh and clear.

  2. I might add that Eliasson is also planning his first permanent outdoor sculptural installation in the United States on the Bard College campus, in a field close by their Frank Gehry-designed performance arts center. Entitled The Parliament of Reality, its opening is scheduled for July 2008, roughly the same time as the Waterfalls.

    As described in a Bard press release, it seems like a meditative meeting place, druidical and ceremonial, something out of Norse mythology or akin to Stonehenge. The plan: a circular pond, 135 feet in diameter, surrounded by a ring of 24 trees. In the center of the pond, a circular island,

    paved with individual stones that inscribe a twelve-point pattern derived from the meridian lines of nautical charts and the compass. The island is accessed via a stone bridge covered by a steel latticework tunnel. Based on the island’s floor, the tunnel’s design is composed of a series of ellipses … Large, smooth boulders situated in two rows around the outer rim of the island provide seating.

    And no groundhogs, to be sure, will be harmed in the excavation of the site.

  3. I doubt there has ever been a time when public-funded art wasn’t a compromise.

    As in Maplethorpe/Cincinnati/1990, art funded by a government designed to pander to the sway of public opinion is not allowed to cross certain boundaries of presumed American-puritanical moral values.

    If you could think of a work or exhibition that was funded by public arts money that deliberately affronts the mean of American values and which the NEA or other public art fund defended in the wake of controversy, that would be something. Or a similar case in Europe? Certainly not here in China.

    Challenging a prevailing aesthetic or definition of art is possible and defendable by such organizations, as with The Gates in Central Park. But publicly funded art seems more meant to reinforce public morale, or at the very least not offend it, particularly in New York now.

    That being said, I think that Eliasson’s art or Christo and Jean-Claude’s art does ‘confront all of existence.’ Considering Christo and Jean-Claude’s art is directed at larger public experience (rather than intimate individual experience of the gallery kind), I’m sure they take public reception into account and it does inform their decisions. Marketing ploys by promoters regarding budget or sustainability aside, does ‘confronting all of existence’ have to be antagonistic or aggressive?

  4. Sometimes the penchant for PC in public art emanates from within the art world, as witnessed in the current controversy re: oil drilling near Spiral Jetty.

    Is Spiral Jetty threatened by petro-greed? Two environmental organizations, Friends of the Great Salt Lake and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, recently alerted Nancy Holt, the widow of Robert Smithson, of an wildcat oil company seeking state permission to do exploratory drilling of the West Rozel Field, an underwater oil deposit in the Great Salt Lake just a couple of miles from Spiral Jetty. Holt appealed to her friends in the arts and media, urging them “to save the beautiful, natural Utah environment around the Spiral Jetty from oil drilling.” Over a thousand emails of protest were sent to the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, which in response has extended the period of public comment to February 13, 2008 on Application to Permit Drilling #08-8853.

    Should you wish to make your voice heard, feel free to call or email Jonathan Jemming at 801-537-9023 or . I dutifully fired off my own letter, as follows:

    Dear Mr. Jemming:

    There is oil to be found (and exploited for profit) in various and sundry locations throughout Planet Earth, and even more specifically in the State of Utah. But there is only one Spiral Jetty. To the international art world, it is a cherished site of pilgrimage, of meditation, of reference. It is one of the few extant earthworks by Robert Smithson, an artist and visionary whose reputation and importance, since his untimely death in 1973, have grown ever larger. In the small but influential precincts of the art world, Smithson looms, if not as a God, then certainly as a major deity.

    I am sure this has become clear to you recently, due to the spate of mail you have received in defense of Spiral Jetty, and against the wildcat oil operation that seeks to begin drilling nearby. The State of Utah, the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, and you most particularly, should not wish to be identified with the despoiling of nature and the insensitive handling of an area that should be designated a national monument.

    Deny Application #08-8853. Say “no” to the West Rozel Field Prospect. And most of all: Dude. Don’t Mess With the Jetty!!!

    Steven Kaplan

    I sent this note despite certain misgivings. Smithson was well known for his embrace of entropy and the interplay between man and nature. He was particularly fond of the detritus found in industrial sites, and often planned his excavations and interventions in ecologically “compromised” areas, in mines and quarries, which he did not view as compromised in the least. There is ample evidence, presented by blogger, AWS contributor and native Utahan Greg Allen, that Smithson chose the Spiral Jetty site precisely for its primitive, antediluvian, ecological implications — a salt flat in proximity to tar like deposits and an off-shore oil seep — and that an abandoned oil derrick, a huge industrial jetty only a half mile away that still dwarfs Smithson’s own project, as well as various corroded pumps and other industrial waste, were quite visible during construction in 1970. In an interesting wrinkle, the state of Utah has since removed 18 dumpster loads of junk in order to “prettify” the area.

    Smithson was perversely enchanted with the site, which in his own words “gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes.” Historically, there had been various attempts to extract oil, all of which failed due to the harsh, corrosive salt air, the quality of the deposits, and other factors. In this context, the proposed oil drilling near Rozel Point might be a welcome entropic intervention, something Smithson, were he still alive, might accept as part of a continuing dialog. So all the well meaning, knee jerk PC activity to “save” the natural, pristine beauty of Spiral Jetty might well run counter to Smithson’s own aesthetic predilections.

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