Art scrape

August 28, 2006

Alot of public art is freighted with meaning, and this tends to distract attention from the question of whether it's any good or not. On one side of the scale, there's the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in Wyman Park - no one goes to look at it just to ponder the abstract notion of men on horses. This piece of art is about a particular view of the Confederacy, one that incidentally may be somewhat less popular today than it was a century ago.

Way on the other side of the scale, there's the National Katyn Memorial by the harbor. Anyone foolish enough to judge it honestly as a work of art would be denounced and run out of town, because of the terrible, if distant, atrocity that it commemorates: the murder of Polish officers by Soviet police in the early stages of World War II. The memory of the crime outweighs the esthetic value of the monument - in fact, it virtually silences any discussion on that score.

Could this explain why defenders of Male/Female, the sculpture in front of Penn Station, get so irritable? That large piece of quadrupedal artwork is out there all on its own, unclothed of commemorative armor that might deflect public criticism - unless you want to think of it as a memorial to the war between the sexes, but that's an issue that people tend to have a lot of different and strongly held opinions about anyway. No, Male/Female gets a lot of attention strictly on its artistic merits, and much of it isn't very positive, especially concerning its setting in front of the beaux-arts railroad station. This drives its proponents up the wall.

The interesting thing about this is that modern art is often praised for being provocative, but the people who like Male/Female can't bear the reactions that it provokes. You'd think they might be pleased that others feel strongly about it, but the answers offered in public to any criticism of Male/Female tend strongly toward sneers and put-downs. If you don't like it, it shows how provincial you are: That seems to be about the best they can muster in the way of discussion.

The Municipal Art Society, which bestowed Male/Female on the city, seems to have learned one lesson from the experience. The next piece it has commissioned is a statue of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and of course no one would dare to pan that. Indeed, says Peter Doo, vice president of the society, "It will be a fairly classical piece, and people will yawn about it."

That's too bad. It seems that anyone who actually cares about art should welcome a real and passionate debate about it, instead of wishing everyone would just pass by and shut up.

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