Whining about Public Art

It's great to have a public conversation in Pittsburgh about something other than the Steelers or the Mayor. Here's another post on public art. John Craig and I have disagreed on the various public art projects proposed for the city. [My post, responding to his TNP piece in the Post-Gazette] [His reply to me] Today, I'm disagreeing with the Post-Gazette's architecture critic, Patricia Lowry.

In this morning's paper, she reports on a recent talk by James Wines, progressive architect, critic, and faculty member at Penn State.

He blasted the kind of public art that cities have embraced since the 1970s, the freestanding sculpture in the plaza.

"Cities are too full of private art as public art," he said. "Works of art should be seen as the environment, not objects in the environment. They should never be able to be removed and put in a museum." . . . .

"Without people interacting there is no public art," he said.

This is a version of the "plop art" critique, damning museum pieces dumped willy-nilly into parks and office plazas with no regard to how people will interact with them or use the space.

There's a lot of merit in the plop art critique, but it can be overdone. Off the top of my head, I can think of a half-dozen museum pieces dumped willy-nilly into public spaces that succeed brilliantly as public art. I'll bet that you can, too. But I digress.

Lowry goes on and makes an implicit case that the Fred Rogers statue proposed for the North Shore, framed by a cutout in the old Manchester Bridge pier, amounts to unworthy plop art. That's where I disagree. But her critique is disjointed; it reads like she added the Rogers statue evaluation after the fact, as a defense of John Craig's criticism rather than as an extension of her report on Wines. In full, with comments, here it is:

Don't you wonder what Fred Rogers would have thought of the idea of a larger-than-life statue of himself on the North Shore? I met him only once, but "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was must-see TV in our house 30 years ago, and I absorbed enough of his outlook then and since to suspect that this least-self-aggrandizing of men would be aghast at the prospect of a big bronze Fred on the riverfront.

No, actually, I don't wonder for a moment what Fred Rogers would have thought. I also don't wonder what Abraham Lincoln would have thought about a huge statue of him inside a modern version of Greek temple. Do we really want to limit ourselves to public memorials that honor men with egos bloated enough to justify life-or-larger-sized statues?

The project's promoters have said it will not be a memorial to him; rather it will be a children's park. But how can a monumental, 10-foot-tall figurative sculpture of a deceased person be anything but a memorial, even as it's part of a children's park? And the North Shore already is thick with memorials.

I agree -- this is a memorial, not a children's park, but the North Shore is hardly thick with them. The memorial would be a nice contrast to the bustling commercialism nearby -- Heinz Field, two new office buildings, the proposed casino.

I'm all for a children's park honoring Mister Rogers, but I agree with former PG editor John Craig (The Next Page, June 17) that this location, adjacent to Heinz Field and a wide road with no street parking, isn't the right one. It is too exposed, too isolated from where young children congregate and too unrelated to his work and will seem especially out of place (and rather inhospitable) in the windy chill of winter. And I can't help thinking that the $3 million it will cost (including $1.3 million for the sculpture) would have gone a long way to creating a superb interactive children's park.

Isolated from where young children congregate? Huh? Can you say "very short, safe, and picturesque walk from the Carnegie Science Center"? Can you imagine a better teaching opportunity that taking a group of children from the hands-on experiences of the CSC to the nearby statue of a man who delighted in promoting that very thing? Sure, there will be some weeks in January and February where that connection can't be made. But if we want to spent money on a superb interactive children's park that is hospitable in winter, we'll be spending it in San Diego.

The plan is to build a deck around the stone Manchester Bridge pier, which dates to 1915, and create a keyhole-shaped opening within it to frame the sculpture and the view. And while the idea of framing the view of the Point is a good one, blowing a hole in the pier seems more like city-sanctioned vandalism than creative repurposing. Must we destroy the pier to save it?

Historic preservation is Pittsburgh's trump card; here, the problem isn't the statue itself but what the statue does. The statue calls for change. "Must we destroy the pier to save it" is a rhetorical question that starts with a false premise (the pier doesn't need to be "saved," because it isn't threatened) and lurches to a false conclusion (the pier won't be destroyed). The two sides of a Pittsburgh critic's sensibility are in public conflict: Using the pier to frame the Point is a good idea [there's the artist] but seems like city-sanctioned vandalism [there's the romance of Old Pittsburgh]. Is the bridge pier, in its current form, really that important? Because if it is [maybe it is; my ignorance of Pittsburgh history continues to grow], then abandon the statue; let's spend $1.3 million making the pier itself a public monument. But as it stands, the pier is just a relic, or maybe a reliquary, embodying the glories that preceded the Fort Duquesne Bridge, for Pittsburghers of a certain age.

The pier gives us three options: tear the pier down, since it's an eyesore in its current form; aggrandize it in a stand-alone form, because it's historically significant; or re-use it creatively. As an argument against the Rogers statue, however, the point about the pier is out of place.

Conclusion: Maybe the money earmarked for the Rogers project would be better spent elsewhere; this isn't a brief advocating for the statue and nothing else. A superb interactive children's park is a great idea and would be a super memorial to Fred Rogers. But why build something from scratch, when Pittsburgh already has superb interactive children's parks? How about $3 million for repairs and upgrades to Schenley, South, North, Boyce, and so forth?

[The post title is an allusion to Patricia Lowry's characterization of James Wines as "a provocative whiner."]


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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