Catch Of The Day

It's a fish, but is it art?

April 26, 2001|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

They'll unwrap a huge fish at Harborplace this afternoon, an event to be marked with sound and flurry and signifying, uh, something. It's Baltimore's contribution to the international fiberglass sidewalk animal thing, a sequel that might be called "Cow Parade XXII."

Or "XXV," or "XXX." It's hard to say exactly. The Swiss started all this with heifers in Zurich in 1998, and since then cities from one continent to another have been falling in line like so many Krispy Kreme franchisees, rolling out armies of fiberglass cows, lions, horses, pigs, moose, hedgehogs, lizards, buffalo and Snoopy dogs. The point is not to spotlight the plight of endangered wildlife. It's an unabashed appeal for commerce, tourism, civic morale and fund-raising.

Today's ceremony at the Inner Harbor unveils a 6-foot-long fish, customized with blue and orange stripes and fishing lure by Michael Anthony and Sarah Z. Barnes, two artists who spent much of the early spring in Anthony's Glen Burnie garage breathing the fumes of billboard paint and assorted plastic compounds.

It's the first of more than 200 fish that will start appearing on local streets during the summer and be auctioned off in the fall to benefit local charities. Public art, at least as old as the Sphinx, steps into the 21st century in another form of man-beast hybrid and suggesting another riddle, such as "what is this?"

Not that it's unusual for public art to arouse skepticism or even hostility. Ever since the National Endowment for the Arts spurred a revival of public art in the late 1960s, abstract outdoor sculptures from the "Chicago Picasso" to George Sugarman's Baltimore Federal piece to Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" in New York have prompted folks to scrunch up their faces and ask, "All right, what is this?"

The fiberglass animals - offspring not of arts minds but chambers of commerce - turn the high-culture, low-culture table. Now it's the arts people who are apt to ask the question in the spirit of inquiry, if not disdain.

Baltimore's "Fish Out of Water" and the other such projects have put thousands of artists to work in cities around the world painting and accessorizing fiberglass animals, yet no glossy national arts magazine has bothered to write about the phenomenon. A New York Times art critic mentioned the city's "Cow Parade" in a review of several outdoor sculptures last summer, giving it top honors for "quantity, ubiquity, relentless aw-shucks hokiness and frequent stupidity." The saving grace, she said, was that the spectacle was temporary.

"There's always the voice that wants to trivialize it, take it out of the art realm," says Arlene Raven, critic in residence at Maryland Institute, College of Art's Reinhardt School of Sculpture. "It's very easy to trivialize it."

Raven has written about public art and edited a scholarly book on the subject, but you won't find her dismissing the fiberglass animals. All right, she says, "it's not Rembrandt, it's not deep art. ... It's the community-building part of public art."

Public art by definition suggests engagement with the larger world, a social consciousness and often a political dimension. The obvious example is the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which literally knits together thousands of communities that contributed commemorative cloth panels.

More recently, California performance artist and writer Suzanne Lacy gathered 100 Oakland police officers and 150 teen-agers on a roof of a building in that city as helicopters hovered overhead videotaping them as they talked in small groups. She called it "Code 33," an otherwise mundane series of encounters literally elevated to the level of performance, framed as a symbol of one city's effort to bridge cultural gaps.

If that's art, then why not a bunch of whimsically decorated fiberglass animals scattered around the city to maybe give folks a lift, encourage a few sidewalk conversations, some impromptu photo ops, all for a good cause?

Lacy, who edited the 1995 book "Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art," says there's a difference. In the animal projects, she says, artists are not generating the idea; they're "invited to add a layer of meaning" to a form and content determined mostly by the local convention and visitor's bureau.

"Its motives have a lot more to do with the decoration and attraction of attention. I don't think these are necessarily the motives of public art," says Lacy.

Perhaps not the decorating part, but absent public attention, fine art is, well, what it has largely become - an obscure preoccupation of a rather limited circle of aesthetes speaking in tongues and wondering why they're so misunderstood. Once something enters the dreaded zone of "accessibility," it seems to risk losing its status as "real art."

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