The recent installation of a newly commissioned work entitled Masks (Pentagon) by Thomas Houseago in New York’s Rockefeller Plaza highlights the latest of a long list of bizarre projects spearheaded by the Public Art Fund.
Like numerous other projects organized by the Fund and supported by prominent public officials and business leaders in recent years, it promotes the “anything goes” agenda of the contemporary art world far more than it serves the public.
The Public Art Fund is a 501(c)(3) organization that receives support from individuals, corporations, and foundations for temporary exhibitions of “contemporary art” in New York City. Its stated aim is to “redefine public art in relation to the changing nature of contemporary art” (emphasis mine).
Redefining art is, in fact, what the art establishment has long been bent on doing. The public, however, has not been buying the redefinition.
It is too soon to tell what the response of most ordinary people to the Houseago project will be. However, only yesterday (a beautiful spring day), very few of the many pedestrians I observed around the Plaza seemed even to be looking at the piece.
I asked three of them how they liked it. “Not very much,” answered one, with a decided frown of disapproval. A second woman, who was struggling to get a picture of it with her cell phone, replied in some frustration: “I don’t know what it is.” Just one of the three answered that she found it “very interesting.”[*]
Also indicative is the public response to last year’s Rockefeller Plaza installation of Split-Rocker—a floral construction by art world megastar Jeff Koons. As judged from remarks following articles online [more], it ranged from confusion and boredom to a frank indictment as “crap.”
Nor did the public respond with enthusiasm to an earlier, more expansive and expensive Public Art Fund project—Olafur Eliasson’s New York City Waterfalls. Costing millions to construct (and resulting in substantial damage owing to the saline spray it produced), that project consisted of artificial waterfalls in four waterfront locations, one of them under the Brooklyn Bridge. The Fund’s “most ambitious project” to date, it was actively promoted by Mayor Bloomberg.
As indicated by countless comments following a post on a New York Times blog, however, the response of ordinary people to the Waterfalls project was overwhelmingly negative, often questioning its status as “art.” A typically irreverent remark was: “Looks like the Brooklyn Bridge taking a leak if you ask me . . . an expensive leak.” One person aptly quipped: “This is not art, it is plumbing!”
Houseago’s project—a quasi sculptural installation of five giant mask-like structures—is at least not plumbing. But it intrudes upon one of New York’s most urbane public spaces. And its status as art is equally questionable.
Flouting the traditional view of art as something made with great skill and care, for example, the piece entailed such creative processes on Houseago’s part as his incorporating the footprints left by his young daughter’s dancing on damp clay and his “hurling lumps of clay down from a ladder.” Not quite the techniques employed by the likes of Michelangelo or Donatello. The work also involves the interactive gimmickry of enabling visitors to view their surroundings through openings in the masks. Such spurious approaches to art-making are standard fare in today’s art world, which embraces virtually anything—except traditional painting and sculpture, that is.
What has been the point of the Rockefeller Plaza exhibitions? According to Jerry Speyer—chairman of Tishman Speyer (the owner of Rockefeller Center), which has co-organized them—”It’s been an interesting way of educating the public.”
Educating the public about what? one might ask. The likely answer would be: about the establishment’s view of what constitutes “contemporary art.” That view was succinctly expressed a couple of years ago by Glenn Lowry—the director of the Museum of Modern Art, of which Speyer also happens to be chairman.
When I asked Lowry whether what some “contemporary artists” are creating might no longer be “art,” he replied that, thanks to Marcel Duchamp (the putative creator of Fountain—a urinal that was purportedly transformed into “art” by his signing it with an assumed name), we can no longer ask that question.
“If an artist does it, it’s art,” Lowry declared with finality. That dictum has long been the mantra of the art establishment—with little thought being given to what qualifies someone as an “artist.”
Such an attitude does not “redefine” art. It undefines it. Ordinary people seem to get that.
Perhaps the time has come for the public to educate the Public Art Fund—as well as its all-too-willing cadre of public officials and business leaders (not to mention art experts such as Lowry)—who have for too long been imposing their distorted view of “contemporary art” on the rest of us.
*In The Use and Abuse of Art, cultural historian Jacques Barzun aptly criticized “the Interesting as an esthetic category,” observing that it is “the first word [used] about the new and usually also the last,” generally referring to “the offbeat, the Absurd, the Minimal or any other form of the unexpected.”