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.

Do Make a Spectacle!

Yesterday, I attended a (masked) symphony Halloween concert where all the musicians dressed in costumes. Some of them were group costumes (such as the double basses who were nuns or the trumpets who were cleverly gender-reversed: four men were Playboy bunnies, and the woman was Hugh Hefner, complete with burgundy robe!) The different conductors wore garb related to the pieces they were conducting (such as many scarves for conducting “The Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salomé), and the audience was also encouraged to dress up as well. 

Each section of instruments took their turn displaying their costumes on stage before settling into their seats, giving the audience a chance to enjoy what they were wearing. The orchestra members played their instruments in the aisles, providing background music. The house lights were bright in the beautiful, historic auditorium where the concert was held.

It made me think–what is it about a grand event like this that is so fulfilling to people?

We human beings need pageantry and spectacle. We need something out of the ordinary, and there is nothing quite like costume to lift us out of our ordinary lives. We need things that are larger than life, not only figuratively but literally, to be in spaces that are not small. We need sound, light, and color to transport us into another world. In other words, we need things that are not human-scaled.

Drama has been around since the early days of humans. So has music. Most of the world’s religious traditions build massive houses of worship, decorated with jewels, gold leaf, stained glass, stone carvings, bright colors, and dress the deities in the finest fabrics. We pay exorbitant sums of money to attend rock concerts in arenas with gigantic screens and light shows, or Broadway musicals with stunning revolving sets. Royalty built edifices that corresponded with their rank: consider a baron’s humble country mansion with an imperial palace.

Even a walk through a Halloween store where they sell all kinds of accoutrements for creating a costume and interesting objects like motorized demons that pop out at you is a delight, a pleasure to see the sheer array of possibilities and imagination. It’s true that Halloween has become grossly commercialized; however, that does not take away the joy of walking through a store where the whole point is to celebrate the fantastical and spectacular.

It is interesting to think that while screens have gotten smaller and smaller and fit on a smart phone, televisions have gotten bigger and bigger: one can have a “home theater” in one’s house with the screen that approaches something in a small movie theater. This only affirms our love of seeing large images. Outside the home, we enjoy going to IMAX movies, because we get a more palpable sense of what it’s like to be on a rocket or seeing dinosaurs at what would have been their approximate size.

After nearly 2 years of living with a pandemic, and being cooped up for most of it, stuck in our own little lives and spaces (even those who live in mansions), there is something so soul-soothing about going into a big space and seeing big images, something that transcends our quotidian world. Here’s to the human phenomenon of the spectacle.