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High Art, Art on the Streets and planters on Tejon Street

Thu, Jun 24, 2010

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Thirty-five years ago, Tom Wolfe wrote “The Painted Word,” an exuberant dissection of “serious” modern art, in theory and practice. Wolfe saw the art world as a cult, complete with acolytes, shamans, and cult leaders – all dedicated to elaborate flim – flammery, to scamming the ignorant and gullible into believing that High Art must be duly certified as such by expert opinion and judgment.

Wolfe didn’t much like the public art of the era, which he later characterized as the “Turd in the Plaza” school of art and architecture.

Developers of the era, forced by building codes to erect slab – sided glass towers surrounded by inhospitable, wind-swept “plazas” of public space, would hire a an artist to design an abstract form and plop it down in the plaza.

Thankfully, our downtown is largely turd-free. We have a general on a horse, a man with a hat, a couple dancing, a famous explorer, two mining magnates, a girl on a mountain bike, three whimsical fountains, two giant paper clips, a bronze bouquet, four enormous sunflowers and lots of other fun stuff.

Happy little backwater that we are, we’ve never paid much attention to art experts.

Alas, that happy state may no longer endure.

The $15,000 grand prize in this year’s “Art in the Streets” competition went to Michael Brohman of Denver for “Earth Mover,” a cast metal (bronze?) replica of a used tire from a piece of heavy equipment, affixed to a rusty steel base.

Selected by juror Jan Schall of the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City, it’s a perfect example of meta-art. That is, it’s art which must be understood in the context of High Art Theory. And do you understand High Art Theory? Of course not! That’s why we need experts!

Wolfe’s book was inspired, if that’s the word, by an essay by New York Times critic Hilton Kramer, who wrote “Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory. And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with works, of art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial-the means by which our experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify.”

In other words, as Wolfe noted, it’s not the art that’s important-it’s the theory.

But who am I to quibble? I loved the two runners – up, Chris Weed’s “Spores” and John King’s “Silver Snapdragon,” fun, colorful, lively pieces that please, entertain, and entrance – no theory required!

And I have another favorite as well – the enormous terra-cotta planters that have ¬†appeared on Tejon Street, which are paid for by the Downtown Partnership and Tejon Street business owners. ¬†The planters are overflowing with summer flowers. They’re just right for simple-minded provincial folk such as ourselves, who unaccountably prefer cheerful flowers and brightly colored sculpture to serious, thought-provoking works of High Art!!!

No turds for us…

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