Public art

A few months ago, a series of blue boxes appeared in the World Financial Center

marina. If you walked past them, you’d realise they were making funny noises.

It turns out that they were a site-specific art

work by Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger called Blue Moon. You can read about

it here

(be prepared for artspeak about "the inherent temporal cycles of the broader

bio-sphere"), or see pictures here:

the installation clearly wasn’t designed to be visually impressive.

I’m a big fan of Creative Time, the public art non-profit which organised Blue

Moon, but this was everything that public art should not be. Most people encountering

it wouldn’t notice it at all; those who did generally had no idea what it was.

The best-case scenario, really, was that someone might suspect that it was "meant

to be art". In order to appreciate it, you needed to arrive armed with

the foreknowledge that it was there, and of its deeper structure, involving

strategically-placed "tuning tubes", tide-activated switches, and

clever real-time harmonic sound mixing. In a gallery context, people might be

expected to find out about this kind of thing; in a public space, you simply

can’t make such assumptions. This was not public art: it was private art –

art for the cognoscenti – in a public space.

Creative Time is by no means alone in making this kind of mistake. I admire

the work of public art organisation Minetta

Brook, for instance, but when they take over a storefront in Beacon, New

York, and convert it into a video installation by Matthew Buckingham, there’s

very little public about the art. The video is a long, slow, black-and-white

silent film of the Hudson River: beautiful, to be sure, but also boring in the

way that most video art installations are boring. The storefront might be open

to the public, but there’s nothing really to invite Beacon residents in, and

certainly nothing to engross or delight them once they’ve entered. This, again,

is art by an established member of the art world, designed to be viewed and

appreciated by other such sophisticates.

The people who sponsor public art are normally – necessarily, even –

art-world people. They have artists they admire, and they like to see what those

artists can do in a public, as opposed to a gallery, setting. Few if any artists

will substantially change the kind of work they create when they are given a

public-art commission, so there’s definitely an art involved in picking artists

who will speak to the general public.

Many very good artists, it turns out, are also very accessible. Jeff Koons,

with his hugely-loved Puppy, springs immediately to mind, as does the

world-famous team of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who are coming

to New York in February. Other artists might seem more forbidding at first

glance but are embraced by the public all the same: I’m thinking here of Rachel

Whiteread’s House,

or Jonathan Borofsky’s Man

Walking to the Sky, which was so well received by the citizens of Kassel

when it was exhibited there at Documenta in 1990 that it was bought by the city


Borofsky, of course, took his Kassel man and made first a female

version, in Strasbourg, and now a group

version, which has been

installed at Rockefeller Center. Rockefeller Center has a great track record

when it comes to public art: the Koons puppy looked wonderful in the space where

the Christmas Tree goes every year, and subsequently there have been excellent

installations by Louise Bourgeois, Nam June Paik and Takashi


While some of these artists might be considered more serious than others, all

of them are genuine art-world heavyweights who have managed to create large

crowd-pleasing installations in midtown Manhattan. A bit further uptown, however,


story is very different. There, the Marlborough Gallery has joined forces

with the Broadway Mall Association and the Parks Department to create something

called "Tom Otterness on Broadway".

Here, the problem is not that an institution like Creative Time is foisting

highbrow art on people incapable of understanding it: quite the opposite. Tom

Otterness, his past association with the likes of Kiki Smith and Jenny Holzer

notwithstanding, is a truly vulgar mass-market artist who appeals to the type

of people who don’t know much about art, but know what they like. His pieces

are excruciatingly literal-minded: one, called "Marriage of Real Estate

and Money", shows some money getting married to a house. Ha! Otterness

talked to the New York Times:

I don’t underestimate rich people’s sense of humor either. You’d be surprised

at the number of real-estate guys who have collected `The Marriage of Real

Estate and Money.’

No, Tom, I wouldn’t. Real-estate guys are precisely the sort of people

I’d expect to buy (not "collect") this piece – and not necessarily

because they’ve got a particularly well-developed sense of humour, either. The

ultimate real-estate guy, of course, is Donald Trump, and he has just the kind

of taste that the Marlborough Gallery is looking for in Otterness collectors.

Here’s James Traub, profiling

The Donald last weekend:

Maybe it’s an example of what Marxists call ”false consciousness,” but

Trump really is a populist plutocrat — and not because he’s philanthropic

or even liberal-minded. It’s the opposite: people seem to like him because

he loves his money and spends it just the way they would if they had it —

as if he had just won a reality show himself in which the prize is absolutely


What makes Trump Trump is not just what he has but what he doesn’t care about

having: status. Trump is not a patron of the arts; he does not sit on the

boards of museums or universities or think tanks. His self-love simply will

not brook the idea of a superior station to which you gain access by virtue

of taste or values or behavior or whatever it is you might be supposed not

already to have. Trump does not even recognize that some people look down

on him; he assumes they must be looking up.

"Populist" is the operative word here, and in fact it comes up again

in the Otterness piece:

Mr. Otterness, 52, is well suited to the diversity and commercial energy

of Broadway. He is both popular and populist — an artist whose sculptures

are intended to work everywhere and be understood by almost everyone.

Now that we are living in the era of the death

of the middlebrow, it’s hard for me to consider populism quite as benignly

as that. Anybody genuinely populist cannot be admirable: Trump is admired by

the ignorant public, not by fellow businessmen, and Otterness has created a

huge business churning out sculptures of cute bears which has no more basis

in the art world than does Thomas Kinkade. The Broadway Mall Association, here,

is essentially throwing its hands in the air and saying that the only way it

will be able to find something popular is by sacrificing all quality-related

criteria. Given that Rockefeller Center has provided many obvious counterexamples,

it’s hard to see why Otterness was chosen, beyond the obvious fact that his

gallery is funding the entire installation.

I’m hopeful, however, that the city’s other public-art installations, like

Mark di Suvero in Madison Square Park and Roy Lichtenstein in City Hall Park

– not to mention Christo in Central Park – will show that good

public art is not some kind of oxymoron. Even today, as Nicholas Serota will

attest, you don’t need to be populist to be popular.

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6 Responses to Public art

  1. mike says:

    I’ll readily admit to being a complete philistine when it comes to art, and was supremely dissappointed when I squandered over an hour of a lovely day to go see Peter Richards’ (which is broadly similar to your cubes) out in San Francisco- the problem with public art is that it often is nowhere near as interesting as the public.

    And what is Christo going to do in Central Park? I’ll have to make the trek up to NYC to check it out…

  2. Stephanie Buchner says:

    Hello. I found your article while I was doing an search, which I find myself doing periodically, for tom otterness’s bears. I read the 9/19/2004 article which was largely devoted to criticizing the literalness of otterness’s work.

    There’s a place for many emotions and aesthetics. I was enthralled by the bears. Their posture strikes on something I sense as sublime, not merely cute. The abject bear captures something profound, and their cute bearness is part of that. I don’t have the energy or inclination just now to expound. I just would invite you to delight in the delights of a thing such as it is without gauging its larger philosophic artistic import. If something touches or amuses someone, it deserves to be enjoyed and appreciated.

    The endless discourse distinguishing the banal from true art seems to tend to flatter the egos and intellects of those who fancy themselves the true artists.

    I saw the Richard Tuttle exhibit at the SF MOMA recently. What a bunch of crap. How the FUCK did that collection of doodling crap get into a major museum? Because a group of people flattered the artist and themselves into believing they were on some higher plane where doodles on a piece of spiral notebook paper are conveying something profound. Fuck that, I’ll take the subtle abject curves of an otterness bear any day! (I have a brilliant impoverished diabetic sibling with Asperger’s syndrome whose art work is so far superior to tuttle’s in any given aspect, except perhaps for the import people impose upon it, it made me especially sick to see this doodling silly crap exhaulted.)

    Let me thank you for reading this rant. Wishing you delight in all things even remotely delightful to anyone of any ecosocionomic or intellectual background 🙂


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