Monday, June 18, 2007

Public Art in Pittsburgh

John Craig's anti-art piece in yesterday's The Next Page -- he opposes putting a UPMC sign on the USX Tower, and a Fred Rogers statue on the North Shore, framed by the Manchester Bridge pier -- is fuddy-duddy-ish and Old Pittsburgh in the extreme. At least he recognizes that he is anti-change and a fuddy-duddy at heart. What he doesn't recognize is that he makes no persuasive case for his conclusion. These things are "the very significant misuse of property to an unintended purpose," whatever that means. It's a good thing that he doesn't take property law from me; with writing like that, he'd fail the course.

The issue isn't "property," and it isn't "art." Signage on skyscrapers is "art" only in the loosest sense, but what we're really talking about isn't "Art" with a capital "A" anyway. Analogizing these things to graffiti, which Craig's piece tries to do, is misleading. The issue is the aesthetics of public space, how they should be managed, and who should manage them. Personally, I think that the Art Commission and the Planning Commission should take a broad view. Pittsburgh's public space could use some livening up. I was watching the U.S. Open golf tournament yesterday afternoon, and once again I was exhausted by recurring broadcast images of steel mills. Pittsburgh should make it easy for TV producers, with limited budgets and limited imaginations, to find additional images of the region. That's hardly the only reason to promote public art, but it's a start.

Signs on skyscrapers are a matter of taste, but Pittsburgh has a lot of them already, and personally, I like them. City skylines should be lively. My old architecture history teacher Vincent Scully anthropomorphized the Manhattan skyline, arguing that the towers were striving for attention with their distinctive tops. The UPMC sign on the USX Tower would at last give that blunt rusty block a hint of color. A bigger sign would be better, I think, than the smaller one that the Planning Commission seems to want.

The Rogers statue and particularly the proposed use of the bridge pier is brilliant. John Craig would hide the statue in a museum or on Fifth Avenue in Oakland or in Shenley Park. I can't think of a better stage for Pittsburgh's most beloved 20th century citizen than a spot just across from the Point, reusing a memorable piece of Pittsburgh history.

Public art is happening in Pittsburgh, and that's a good thing. It could use more publicity. Dave Edwards, one of the local artists behind the Pittsburgh Roars inflatables last year, sent me a photo of a 3,000 sq. ft. public mural that he's just completed on the North Side titled "Welcome to Deutschtown." The mural is located at the corner of Cedar Ave. and East Ohio Street and is painted on the side of the Park House. The mural project is managed by the Northside Leadership Conference with the support of the URA, The Elm Street Community, PNC and the East Allegheny Community Council. Dave writes: "The mural has an architectural and stained glass theme containing nine city crests representing the Austrian, German and Swiss towns of some of the original settlers of the area. A Maestro playing piano by candle light adds a warm and whimsical touch." Pittsburgh Dish has a posting of the latest pictures with scaffolding removed. There will be a dedication on June 20 at 6:30 p.m., complete with live German and Swiss music in the park in front of the site.

UPDATE ADDED 6/27: UPMC signs are going on the U.S. Steel Tower after all. Yay!


Tim Murray said...

I agree -- although I'd prefer even a Fleet Enema sign to something that says "UPMC" -- but I know that wasn't your point. I would add that I loved your old teacher Vin Scully's call of Kirk Gibson's homerun in the '88 World Series.

Anonymous said...

The jury isn't in yet on Mr.Rogers.
His work has already been questioned by a group of psychologists and I believe we we all live long enough to see other questions arise concerning the effect his philosophy had on the teaching of pedology. Statues, like signs are dangerous things. It would be like putting up a memorial to Flight 93 then learning that the conspiracy theories were right. Statues to human beings are very dangerous things.

Anonymous said...

I would argue that it *is* very easy to find images of the region besides steel mills. But for some reason TV stations seem to seek out mills to show during events like this. They could easily grab some footage of the rivers and hills, the skyline, inclines, and bridges. Those things are much more accessible than mills, I would think. I have never understood why they persist in showing mills - maybe it is stock footage and they are just lazy. To the detriment of the region.

But I am getting away from the point of your comments, I realize. As far as signs, I think tasteful signs can certainly add to the skyline. But I am not sure about having *any* sign on the tallest building downtown. It seems like it would stand out too much.

Mike Madison said...

Pedology? Did Mr. Rogers have an inner gardener? Anonymous, you're working on an all-time classic typo. I just wish that I could figure out what your point really is.

Is there any evidence -- point to scholarship, if there is any -- that Fred Rogers did more harm than good in his day? That preaching kindness and patience and acceptance was a mistake? Citations, please.

Schultz said...

I'd love to see more murals around the burgh. Philadelphia has a ton of murals, it has murals in pretty much every neighborhood. Besides eschewing a sense of pride among the locals the murals are a big hit with the tourists.

Jonathan Potts said...

According to, pedology also refers to "the scientific study of the nature and development of children." But I too would like to see some citations or links to legitimate scholarly journals.

Of course, as John Craig makes clear in his essay, his concern is aesthetic, so Mike's argument is valid regardless.

Mike Madison said...

JP, you're right again. "Pedology" does have something to do with children. Pedology appears to be an outdated and largely discredited discipline focused on studying children as one would study the natural world.(The phrase "teaching of pedology" is an anachronism, at best.)

Fred Rogers spent years studying developmental psychology at Pitt with Dr. Margaret McFarland.

Ms. Monongahela, Ms. Chief Editor said...

I am still mulling over the Fleet Enema versus "UPMC" logo ...

Perhaps "anonymous" is referring to this citation, which clearly and undeniably places "Mr. Rogers" (if that *really* is his name!) among the ranks of one of the greatest conspirators, and dare I say antiestablishmentarians of our time:

"I often think of what Will Durant wrote in *The Story of Civilization*: 'Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting, and doing things historians usually record -- while, on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry, whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happens on the banks.'"

-- *The World According to Mr. Rogers*

The words of a madman!

Mike Madison said...

All the more reason, Ms. Mon, to locate his statue in a position of prominence!

John Morris said...

The connection between Fred Rogers and rising gang violence is so obvious.

Anonymous said...

I invite those wondering what I meant to google "self centered generation".
and look at
a local piece that attempts to "explain" a then recent study and how Mr.Rogers is being mis-interpreted. The spin comes from Hedda Sharapan, director of early childhood initiatives for Family Communications Inc., the producer of the "Mister Rogers, Neighborhood" series.

Mike Madison said...

Anon, neither the story nor the study criticize Fred Rogers. You're blaming him for narcissism among today's youth? That dog won't hunt.

Jean Twenge's study, which is the subject of the P-G article, hasn't yet made it through the peer-review process. In earlier work, her own methodology consisted of a literature review, rather than independent data collection. At most, she is documenting higher levels of narcissism among today's youth -- but not the causes of the change.

Anonymous said...

Of course this is strictly my opinion but the "apple doesn't fall far from the tree". I invite you to critique the neighborhood programs from an adult's perspective. Mr. Rogers is certainly a kind empathetic character,but the message of narcissism comes through in the character Fred Rogers portrayed. I think it was unconscious but its there. Searching online you would be hard pressed to find articles critical of Fred Rogers, but, he was a man, a good man but a human being, not without faults and not infallible in his judgments concerning children's needs. He was capable of mistakes. In retrospect I think he would admit this. In the end he created so many characters that he became unsure about what was being said and how the two worlds he controlled worked. The evidence of this is held in the memories of those who worked with him, and they to a person are far too kind and gentle to speak about it. Maybe that was the greatest influence Mr. Rogers had on people. The idea that we don't criticize, and that we act in an appropriate and
civil manner. Nearly everyone who met him has a story. I prefer the ones that celebrate his humanity, not his sainthood. The link between Mr. Rogers and gang members? They both believe that "its all about me, and how special and entitled I am to everything that exists in their worlds, worlds that they begin to believe THEY created. Mr. Rogers could make time stop in the lives of the people he visited on the show. His needs were always put ahead of others and his needs were always met. Their desire (gang members) and in Mr. Rogers case his ability to control every aspect of both the real and the imaginary worlds he lived in sent a message to his young viewers. Today many people are ill prepared to face their own realities and disappointment. What effect do you think thats had on society? Read about his childhood.
Consider how he acted in his own life, in his interaction with people. People might say he was just like he was on television. But was that healthy for him, or for his viewers. If he stayed in character all the time,was that the sign of a healthy individual? Did some of this mis understanding leak out on his show. A friend says The Neighborhood was a good show that just lasted too long, that it should have stopped production in the late 60s. But, it all happened in Pittsburgh, where much is hidden, and its possible to escape both Karma and justice. Like the old western song says: "...where seldom is heard, a discouraging word, and the skies are all cloudy all day".

Mike Madison said...

Yes, I guess that must be true. Future gang members watched Mr. Rogers and absorbed subconscious signals transmitted by a man characterized by his own unhealthy narcissism and surrounded by a silencing conspiratorial cult of personality. (His wife, too, was obviously in on the plot, since she has said publicly that his televised humanity matched his private humanity.) South Central Los Angeles is, to this day, hypnotized by the self-absorption you hear when you play the feel-good "Won't You Be My Neighbor" backwards. After all, didn't Mr. Rogers wear a red sweater? More subliminal gang messages! All this time, we had no idea that he was a closeted Blood.

Your quotation from Home on the Range is as faulty as your logic.