Public Art

by Svetlana Grobman, CPL Librarian
Originally published by the Columbia Daily Tribune.

We live in a practical century. We work, we raise children, we rush around doing things, and we rarely stop “to smell the roses.” Often, we wait for vacations to do that, to breathe fresh air, climb mountains and enjoy the beauty of it all, yet a craving for the sublime is inside us year-round. In fact, it is in our genes, for even in ancient and prehistoric times, our ancestors painted caves, made stone sculptures and adorned vases. We need beauty to fill our hearts and lighten our souls, to help us feel happy and alive. And we surely need it in our surroundings.

Here’s where public art comes in. Monuments, memorials and civic statuary are perhaps the oldest forms of public art. Judith Dupre examines 37 American monuments -- from the Liberty Bell and the Alamo to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Oklahoma City National Memorial -- in “Monuments" (Random House, 2007), as well as supplies poignant back stories and explanations of monument symbolism.

Architecture can itself be public art, from the Great Pyramid of Giza (ca. 2551 BC) – described by Bob Brier and Jean-Pierre Houdin in “The Secret of the Great Pyramid” (HarperCollins, 2008), to the Louvre Pyramid (1989) -- featured in Susan Sternau’s “Museums: Masterpieces of Architecture” (Todtri, 1999), and numerous other structures. Edward Hollis presents historical journeys of thirteen monumental buildings in “The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip” (Metropolitan Books, 2009).

One of the functions of contemporary public art is establishing connections to a place. Ronald Lee Fleming makes a case for accessible public art that fosters a powerful civic experience in “The Art of Placemaking: Interpreting Community Through Public Art and Urban Design” (Merrell, 2007). Fleming advocates public art that engages the popular imagination through common references to folklore, culture, geography and history.

Commemoration of history is a common reason for creating public art. John Taliaferro takes us back in time in “Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore” (PublicAffairs, 2002). Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen presents the story of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, in “Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future” (Yale University, 2006). Also, Bob Priddy talks about depicting Missouri history in the Missouri State Capital murals, in “Only the Rivers Are Peaceful: Thomas Hart Benton’s Missouri Murals” (Herald Publishing House, 1989).

By the 1990s, public art had evolved from installing a lonely monument on an open plaza to designing the entire plaza, creating an event, or reconstructing a neighborhood. Tom Finkelpearl’s “Dialogues in Public Art: Interviews With Vito Acconci, John Ahearn and Others” (MIT Press, 2001) presents interviews with people who create and experience public art, from artists to bureaucrats to people whose lives are changed by the new developments.

Public art is no longer confined to physical elements either; dance, procession, street theater, even poetry have become its objects. Also, a new practice has emerged in the art world that invites the public to touch, enter and experience the work, whether it is in a gallery, on city streets, or in the landscape. Barbara Rose discusses Dale Chihuly’s glass installations in Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory, in “Chihuly: Gardens & Glass” (Portland Press, 2002).

Some contemporary artworks are intended for temporary existence. Artists working in this discipline use outdoor sites to create large works not suitable for a gallery. One of these works, The Gates (7,503 saffron-colored vinyl "gates" installed along 23 miles of pathways in New York City’s Central Park in February 2005), is described in Jonathan Fineberg’s “Christo and Jeannie-Claude: On the Way to The Gates” (Yale Press & Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004).

Among other contemporary artists who incorporate environment in their works are Richard Long, Antony Gormley, Robert Smithson and Andy Goldsworthy. Check out Andy Goldsworthy’s “Time” (Harry Abrams, 2000) and Finley Eversole’s “Art and Spiritual Transformation” (Inner Traditions, 2009).

Art and controversy have gone together like day and night throughout American history, and while the specifics of each conflict are unique, the patterns are similar. Objections to Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the 1980s echoed protests against the Washington Monument a century earlier, and the recent uproar against the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Sally Mann recall the furor over the indecency of Rodin's sculptures in the late nineteenth century. In “Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture” (Knopf, 2006), Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Michael Kammen chronicles a number of art-related battles, including controversies over race and gender, depictions of the American flag, cutting-edge museum exhibitions, and the merits of modernism versus conceptualism.

In Columbia, we’ve had our share of controversies, too. Peter Chinni’s "La Colomba," a sculpture that is now a Columbia landmark, was the subject of hot debate in 1979. More recently, “Jamboree,” by sculptors Jim Calvin and Andy Davis, located in the Courthouse Square, and Albert Paley’s “Cypher” at the entrances to the Columbia Public Library, have had outspoken supporters and detractors. Readers interested in other works by the creator of one of the library’s most prominent art pieces will enjoy reading Klein Steel’s “Albert Paley: Threshold” (Rizzoli, 2008) or M. Jessica Rowe’s “Albrt Paley Portals and Gates” (University Museums, 2007).

As for Columbia’s public art, take a self-guided tour created by the City. Learn about the library’s other art. Also, keep your eyes peeled for Howard Meehan's "Keys to the City" sculpture in the plaza of the new City Hall this spring. And remember, if you find yourself puzzled by a new art piece, think of the words of Daniel Barenboim: “Every great work of art has two faces, one toward its own time and one toward the future, toward eternity.”

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