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The myth of modern sculpture

Robert Downes - February 25th, 2008
The Myth of Modern Sculpture
Hey brother, have you got the time for “Time Myth”? No? Didn’t think so.
It was a foregone conclusion that the controversial metal sculpture would never find a home on the waterfront of Traverse City’s Open Space park.
People would rather see the sailboats and seagulls. So three cheers for the TC Commission for giving the thumbs-down on parking this 29-foot-tall sculpture in front of our view of the bay.
In case you’re behind the time on this issue, “Time Myth,” which doubles as a sundial, is a “blue light special” from the wreckage of the Kmart corporation. Years ago, Kmart’s brilliant executives purchased “Time Myth” for $800,000 from Southfield sculptor John Piet for their headquarters in Troy. Then, after they succeeded in wrecking the company and the employees’ retirement plan, the execs bailed out with their pockets full of gold, leaving their successors with an art collection of dubious value.
Significantly, when the sculpture was offered at auction for a minimum bid of $75,000, no one took the bait.
So “Time Myth” is a loveless sculpture from the get-go. It makes you wonder, why do we want it, even if it’s offered as an outright donation to the Dennos Museum Center? Corporate art should be suspect in any community, especially a cast-off from Kmart, which was hardly the hallmark of good taste.
But as an amateur sculptor myself, I’d be so bold as to say that the value of modern sculpture in general is suspect. On the whole, the sculpture of the past 100 years tends to be cold, bleak and lacking much sense of the human spirit.
Author, satirist and social observer Tom Wolfe made the same argument in his 1981 book, “From Bauhaus to Our House.”
Like a kid pointing out that the emperor is wearing no clothes, Wolfe claimed that much of modern art is a ruse, perpetuated on us by art professionals who have everything to gain by foisting a sense of confusion on the public. These “serious” artists claim to have esoteric knowledge and are able to divine the value of abstract, meaningless art that is simply “too creative” for the public to understand or appreciate.
The worth of public sculpture should be fair game for rigorous criticism for the simple fact that it is in the public domain.
Let’s take a few examples of public sculpture that bonked:
As a child in the 1960s, I recall the excitement surrounding a sculpture that Pablo Picasso was installing in downtown Chicago. Imagine -- the greatest artist in the world had created a top-secret sculpture for America’s Second City.
Well, the big day came with the cameras of the nation’s television news focused on the sculpture under wraps. Slowly, the tarp was unveiled revealing... a giant metal baboon!
That Picasso -- what a sense of humor.
There was a huge wave of disappointment over Picasso’s sculpture, which no one has ever warmed up to. Today, it’s an afterthought for the city, tucked in a square down near the Miracle Mart.
Similarly, 38 years ago, Grand Rapids commissioned “La Grande Vitesse,” a sculpture by Alexander Calder for $127,000. After considerable grumbling, the citizens of Grand Rapids grudgingly went along with the deal. As with most modern art, the citizens were bamboozled with pretense: After all, the red metal amoeboid blob at Van Andel Plaza was created by a famous sculptor -- it must be worthwhile -- it simply has a mystique beyond the ability of the average person to comprehend.
Today, the people of Grand Rapids are proud of their Calder and it has become the city‘s symbol.
Yet, do you feel exalted or get warm feelings when you view the Calder? Or does its alien form make you feel empty and alone? Does it lift your spirits and fill you with well-being, or suck the soul right out of you?
One measure of great art is that it should provoke an emotion. Michelangelo’s “David” in Florence, Italy for instance, evokes the glory of a young man in his prime. “David“ is so popular that the city is thinking of moving it out of town. Why? Because it attracts such huge crowds that the city is often paralyzed by gridlock.
By contrast, modern public art often fails because it arouses no emotion other than confusion, the precursor of fear and hostility.
And when public art looks suspiciously like an assemblage of pots & pans, or random connections of steam pipes, or blobs of cooled lava, we have a civic duty to point out that it‘s junk.
What do people really want from public sculpture? Art with a human face. The art of classical forms, such as “David,” Rodin’s “The Thinker,” and the “Statue of Liberty.” People travel halfway around the world to see the “Venus de Milo“ in the Louvre, or the statues of Abu Simbel in Egypt. But most of us wouldn’t bother to walk two blocks out of our way for any modern sculpture you can name on earth.
Whoops -- I take that back. Chicago‘s Crown Fountain sculpture at Millennium Park is ultra modern, yet wildly popular. And why is that? Because it photographically displays the human faces of those who look at it. Go figure.
Another example: the huge “Reflective Head“ sculpture which was outside Kmart‘s headquarters until its donation to the city of Troy in 2000. That beautiful work of bronze and glass put a human face on modern sculpture.
One Michigan sculptor who had a clear head about what people love was Marshall Fredericks, who died in 1998 at the age of 90 after a lifetime of producing monumental figurative art. You can see his work in the Firefighter’s Monument in Roscommon, or the Cross in the Woods in Indian River. Or the “Spirit of Detroit” sculpture at the foot of Woodward Avenue (which depicts a family standing on God’s palm), or the giant metal arm of Joe Louis, poised for a punch.
Fredericks, who is dismissed by some “serious” artists as a hack and a master of kitsch, was no Rodin or Michelangelo, but one suspects that his work will stand the test of time longer than most modern sculpture for the simple fact that it has heart.
Only time will tell as to whether we regular folks will come to appreciate the public art we’ve been saddled with. But the place for “Time Myth” is clearly outside the Dennos Museum Center on the campus of Northwestern Michigan College, which already has a collection of modern sculpture on its grounds.
 
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