Friday, July 25, 2008

You can tell it's worthwhile if it pisses someone off

UW art professor Jack Damer wrote a column for the State Journal today about the impressive string of fiascos that comprise Madison's attempts at public art. The latest project, the State Street-Frances Street Plaza gives every indication of continuing that track record. Mike Verveer lauds it as ". . . the type of piece that hopefully won't evoke strong opposition." I can't wait.

Damer's right, of course, in pointing out both the mediocrity of public art in Madison and the staggering blandness of the State Street redesign. He's also right to point out the city's habit of ignoring the expertise at the west end of State Street in favor of committees of well-heeled novices or, I might add, expensive outside "experts." I suppose it's worth noting that the University's own athletic department probably didn't consult the art faculty either before they erected a giant phallus . . . er obelisk-made-of-footballs in front of the fieldhouse.

Damer's advice to the city is to simply stop trying create public art pieces and use the money instead to create an actually attractive streetscape. My guess is that would fail too. It seems to me that the problem here is the entire concept of design by committee.

When I took my first job as a choral conductor, I considered some of the people I was directing to be better musicians than I. (This is going somewhere, I swear.) This bothered me at first because I was constantly afraid that my interpretive ideas would differ from theirs; and who was I to overrule them? It finally occurred to me that I was the conductor. It always helps for the decision-maker to be the best qualified but, in music, its more important that the decision-maker is one person. Had everyone felt the need to assert all of their own ideas about tempo, phrasing and interpretation, we'd either have taken months to work everything out or simply sounded like crap.

In visual art, it seems that the artist should be her own conductor. Committees are perhaps a fine way to pick an artist to begin with, provided they have actual expertise to judge the field of candidates but, that person having been selected, every demand, every outside direction and every compromise is a step along the path to mediocrity. If you trust your artist to have good ideas, then you should give her leave to fully realize them.

But what of the controversy? What if people hate her idea? Well then they do. If you've chosen well, a fair number will love it too. Good art should evoke strong emotions in people. No-one wants to spend a quarter-million dollars on a giant visual conciliation. The last thing you want, the lowest of the low, is that piece that no one really hates. Everyone just dislikes it a little.