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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Fear of Art

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Whenever politicians try to pass themselves off as art critics, intelligent citizens have to wonder whether all the other decisions made by public officials are rooted in such profound ignorance.

Even more of a wonder is why celebrated national artists even bother trying to create public art. All they usually get for their trouble are vulgar insults.

It happened again last week when a committee of the Milwaukee Common Council took plebeian potshots at the concept behind a $300,000 art installation for Downtown Milwaukee.

Alderman Bob Donovan actually rushed out of the room, saying: “I refuse to have my name attached to something as ridiculous as that.”

Actually, no one can remember respected artists ever expressing a strong desire for Donovan’s name to be attached to any of their creative works.

At least Alderman Willie Wade admitted his personal ignorance about art. “I’m just not feeling it,” Wade said, “But then, I wouldn’t pay 50 cents for the Mona Lisa.”

Wade’s admission showed why it wouldn’t be a good idea to put him in charge of acquisitions for the Milwaukee Art Museum. Neither should we give other art ignoramuses (self-confessed or not) veto power over public art. The ridiculous thing about the aldermanic anti-art eruption is that the Downtown art installation has already been paid for with $60,000 in city funds and $240,000 from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Also, it really does seem rather charming.

Created by Janet Zweig, a nationally known artist born in Milwaukee, it utilizes five animated street signs mounted on light poles near the east end of Wisconsin Avenue leading to Milwaukee’s only recognizable world landmark, the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Zweig’s installation is an Old World Milwaukee addition to the impressive public art collection on the Lake Michigan end of Downtown that not only includes Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s first U.S. design, but also the brilliant orange starburst by another world-renowned artist, Mark di Suvero.

Proving that public attacks frequently accompany the work of great artists, you can still hear calls from public officials for the di Suvero sculpture to be moved several miles east from the bluff where it overlooks Lake Michigan. But Calatrava had such respect for di Suvero’s The Calling he actually sited his $100 million addition to MAM so that it lines up perfectly with the sculpture.

Complementing the soaring, futuristic flight of the Calatrava and the grounded industrial beams of di Suvero, Zweig’s installation recalls Milwaukee in an even earlier age with an old-fashioned form of animation that flips panels to create moving figures. Local filmmakers, artists and performers would be employed to help create small stories to be told flip-book style inside five separate kiosks. What’s not to like about flip books?

Actually, art has always been pretty frightening to politicians. Because most of them have so little understanding or appreciation of art, they are afraid of being taken for fools.

I was living in Chicago in the ’60s when Pablo Picasso, the greatest living artist of the day, announced he was donating an original sculpture to be placed in the downtown civic center.

You have never seen a more terrified group of aldermen. All they knew about Picasso was that he created art they couldn’t understand. It was this newfangled “modern art” and they couldn’t make heads or tails out of it.

Picasso was creating some kind of abstract expressionism that seemed to include pieces of women, but their bodies and faces were all put together in the wrong order. What if the whole gift was a great big joke on the city of Chicago? Maybe it was even dirty. Who knew what body parts of women might be in there somewhere?

One alderman seriously proposed scrapping the Picasso in the civic center and replacing it with a statue of Chicago Cub Ernie Banks.

One sure sign of being a Midwestern rube is to assume sophisticated artists are always trying to make fun of you. That was one of the big objections voiced to the Blue Shirt by another prominent national artist, Dennis Oppenheim, that was rejected a few years back for the Milwaukee County airport.

Some of our most imaginative artists make the ordinary fantastic. That seemed to be the concept behind Oppenheim’s spectacularsounding piece. Unfortunately right-wing radio scared politicians into believing the artwork was somehow intended to insult blue collar Milwaukee.

If you’re in a remote corner of the airport parking garage someday, you may stumble across a clutter of sailboat parts scattered in a corner. That’s the noncontroversial art that was created instead.

Good art is never innocuous. But politicians are uncomfortable with anything that does not appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Politicians who are afraid of art make a perfectly good community look as backward and intolerant as they are.

What’s your take?

Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.