Public Art

This time of year is full of a creative medium that is so appealing to so many people of all different backgrounds and ages: holiday/Christmas lights and decorations. On TV, local news highlights different streets and events where one can go to see magnificent and/or tacky decorations that people generously put up on their houses and lawns. There are also websites and good old word of mouth to inform people where they can go for a dose of holiday cheer. It strikes me that this is, fundamentally, a kind of public art.

What is public art at its best? A tremendous force to unite people under the principle of aesthetics. The Fourth of July is another example, with extraordinary flowers of fire that illuminate the night sky: fireworkds form a canopy under which millions of people sit with their friends and families and loved ones, perhaps with something to eat or drink, basking in the display above them. Like the tradition of Christmas decorations, many people enjoy decking out their yards for Halloween. All of these involve people stopping to look, examine, observe, and delight in. What has the artist come up with? How have they used a large outdoor space?

Murals are a wonderful example of public art, and they often are a prevalent mode in minority communities. Whether it is carefully-designed graffiti on walls or a mural dedicated to a hero, we cannot overlook the significance of how accessible both the materials and the artwork are. Think of Diego Rivera, who is revered as one of Mexico’s greatest artists. Anyone who has seen his mural at the Detroit Institute of Art will understand why without question, though of course it is ironic that a left-wing artist’s mural is on display in a museum funded by the spoils of capitalism. But no art school training or fancy materials are needed for murals: cans of (spray) paint, brushes, and imagination are all that is needed. British artist Banksy has elevated this to a fine art form, and his works sell for millions, though he is a creator of public art. Put the mural on the ground and it becomes sidewalk art. While living in New York, I loved seeing the work of James de la Vega, with its inspirational messages that kept a young music student like me going.

One cannot speak of public art without referring the late, great Bulgarian-French artist Christo (and his wife Jeanne-Claude) who, like it or not, made enormous installations in public spaces that were accessible for everyone to see. I had the privilege of seeing him give a talk a few years ago, and he seemed like one of the true late 1960s French left-wing radicals, explaining how he used the money from his lucrative works to galleries and private collectors to find his public art. There are others, of course, who do not work with a Christo-sized budget but create stunning works for the community, such as my friend, multimedia artist Jenneva Kaiser who had an outdoor installation in Phoenix. Outdoor sculpture gardens, such as the magnificent Storm King outside New York City which features art by the great heavyweights such as Calder and Maya Lin (who deserves her own blog post, as she is a seminal figure in public art) and the Meijer Sculpture Gardens outside Grand Rapids, MI make use of massive space and scale as well as nature.

Public art is our natural impulse. When we are tiny children, we take pleasure in doodling on sidewalks with chalk if that is possible, making sandcastles in a sandbox or at the beach (another creative medium which has been elevated to an art form we can see in competitions). It’s also a prehistoric impulse: think of the cave paintings in Lascaux and elsewhere. We need it more than ever, especially in a time like this when a pandemic has isolated us and kept us inside. Safe, socially distanced, mask-required outdoor art a great way of connecting us when our most fundamental human aspect of connection has been denied to us.

Artistic Lineages 

Today’s post will be brief, but I want to raise the topic of artistic lineages. Just as in various world traditions and religion, scholarship, etc. (for example, the particular Tibetan Buddhist lineage the Dalai Lama comes from), there are lineages artists might find themselves influenced by. Of course we have schools or movements within the arts, like the Black Mountain Poets or the Harlem Renaissance. One might argue that this idea of an artistic lineage is the same thing, but I would counter that it spans time and is perhaps more about how artists influence each other across genres. There is the “downtown New York” scene that went on for a few decades: Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Meredith Monk, and more recently, Suzanne Vega to name a few. I find myself most deeply fascinated by this lineage of artists, which you can see is largely musical. Some of these artists have worked together and influenced each other. 

When I was a graduate and then music student in New York, I had the great fortune of discovering the work of Suzanne Vega and see her perform at Barnard in Columbia twice, and worked as a temp at Philip Glass’s archives for a couple of weeks one summer. While it is hard to put into words what I like about this “downtown New York” lineage, I can say that I find it very cultured, intelligent, heartfelt, and urbane. These artists do not draw only on what is contemporary or their own feelings, but they have connections to greater works of art or artists. Patti Smith is truly a woman of letters who is fascinated by all modes of art, from fashion to literature to opera.

It is important for every artist, in whatever medium or modality they work in, to think about their influences. Sure, we can say that our work is our own, original, and not like anyone else’s. But somehow, somewhere subconsciously, there are artists whose works we admire. Whether or not we choose to emulate them is a different story, but we have to be aware of who influences us and who has made us think and feel and react in certain aesthetic ways.

What are your favorite artistic lineages?

“House of Gucci”: Opera in Film Form

There are certainly several mixed reviews and criticisms about Ridley Scott’s latest film, “House of Gucci,” which chronicles the life of Patrizia Reggiani, a working-class social climber who marries into the Gucci family, helps build the company, and then orders the murder of her husband Maurizio. The Gucci family has shunned the film, saying they were not consulted, and that the portrayals are inaccurate. Former Gucci designer Tom Ford has admitted to laughing at the film and has criticized its inauthenticity. However, taken at face value, the film is a fantastic, epic piece of entertainment that does everything a good film should (admittedly, with some problems with the Italian accents.

To begin with, Lady Gaga is terrific as Patrizia Gucci. She is not just an American actress speaking with an Italian accent: as a fluent speaker of Italian who has spent time in Italy and who has many Italian friends, I can confirm that she speaks English like an Italian. Her inflections, mannerisms, and personality as a scrappy go-getter are spot-on. The emotional continuity in her performance never wavers, and it builds in intensity –Ridley Scott has gotten an excellent performance out of her. She carries most of the film and has a natural strength on camera. I am not a fan of her as a musician, as I find most of what she does is very derivative and not original (legend Grace Jones has said the same thing in not so many words). But as an interpreter of others’ works when guided, she is excellent. Al Pacino as Uncle Aldo steals any scene he is in; with his gravitas and gravelly voice, he has presence with a capital P. Jared Leto’s performance over the top, campy, expressively Italian, and exaggerated, as is fitting for an eccentric family member. Unfortunately, Adam Driver’s inability to grasp a convincing Italian accent diminishes his dramatic abilities, as he is otherwise credible as the meek, non-confrontational Maurizio. Overall, the acting is very strong, as the cast is full of Oscar winners and industry heavyweights. They play off each other beautifully, with every character somehow enmeshed in another character’s life. They are a family, and with family come all the ups and downs we expect.

In addition to the accents, one of the great criticisms of the film is that it is melodramatic, campy, factually inaccurate. To which I say, yes. But that is what we want, because we want entertainment on a grand scale. The tone and scope of this film is operatic; that is, it is grand, visual, visceral, and emotional. Every turn provides intrigue. Just like in great opera such as Don Giovanni, we have love, sex, lust, revenge, plotting, jealousy, and ultimately murder. What’s wrong if Paolo Gucci is flamboyant in velvet suits, emoting at every turn? If Aldo Gucci is mafioso in manner? And if Patrizia is a great schemer like Lady Macbeth or murderess like Lucia di Lammermoor?

Like a grand opera, we expect great sets and costumes, and the film never fails to deliver on that front. We see palazzi, penthouses, fancy cars, and sophisticated settings. The clothes, by Gucci, of course, are a parade of good design and collectible dresses and suits and shoes. These things are crucial to the plot and not merely eye-candy, for the business of the characters is image and object. The Guccis trade in the visual, and so the film must reflect that, form following content. 

Finally, music is an integral part of this film. There are, of course, many arias and opera extracts throughout the film (especially Rossini), but also pop and disco from the 70s and 80s. Granted, some of the song choices are asynchronous; they are not from the particular time period shown on screen. But all the music choices serve to heighten the emotion of the film, giving it more glamour and creating more of the cultural atmosphere.

We don’t often get a film that is well-crafted and well-acted, and is trying to accomplish one goal: pure entertainment. “House of Gucci” succeeds beautifully, even with its flaws.