The Avenue in Hampden is the capital of Baltimore kitsch, so for years the city got along just fine having that huge pink flamingo mounted above the landmark Cafe Hon. But now some city inspector has suddenly discovered that - gasp! - the big bird may actually be in violation of some silly ordinance or another.
Sorry, too late. You should have thought of that years ago. The Big Bird stays.
There's no need to pretend this long-necked fowl is great art. It's pure kitsch, as it was intended to be. Kitsch is the opposite of the complex, difficult, provocative and occasionally infuriating art in museums. It's art for everyday people going about their everyday business, which is what folks tend to do down on the Avenue in Hampden.
Clement Greenberg, the late great critic of The Nation magazine, railed against kitsch his whole career and never quite reconciled himself to anything made after about 1970. Greenberg thought the Pop art of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others - along with everything that followed - was tawdry and cheap and more or less wholly unworthy of being called art. If you asked Greenberg the difference between art and kitsch he could have summed it up in two words: Pink flamingos.
But nowadays nobody pays much attention to such pronouncements from on high. Today's most adventurous postmodern critics even deny any difference at all between art and kitsch - witness the acclaim heaped on artist Jeff Koons' gigantic aluminum sculptures of beach toys and porcelain statues of Michael Jackson. In the contemporary art world anything can be art, including pink flamingos, especially if they happen to adorn a building in Baltimore housing a restaurant named Cafe Hon.
That's why Hampden's Big Bird should be preserved, if only as a memento of a certain wacko sensibility dear to Baltimorean hearts. It's a monument to the city's prescience in recognizing the significance of what Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes called "the shock of the new" when it really was still new.
Pink flamingos are as much as part of this city's distinctive visual aesthetic as are multi-colored Christmas tree lights and statues of William Donald Schaefer by the Harbor. Indeed, if Mr. Schaefer were still mayor, there's no way he wouldn't come up with some strategem to make sure the pink flamingo over Hon's stayed put.
After all, in an era in which anything can be art, everyone deserves credit as a critic, too.