Friday, March 21, 2008

Baltimore Art Crimes


All that glitters isn't gold. After walking by Mount Vernon Park and seeing the "art" there, I got to thinking about all the public art works around town that annoy non-art school educated laymen like me.

Mt. Vernon Park Gold Chain Link Fence (2008)

"Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above - Don't fence me in/Let me ride through the wide open country that I love- Don't fence me in."
- "Don't Fence Me In" (Cole Porter & Robert Fletcher)

Portrait of the Artist as a young asshole

I hate it. And I'm not alone. As part of a collaborative art exhibit sponsored by MICA and the Walters Art Museum ("Fencing Mount Vernon Place"), art student Lee B. Freeman puts up an ugly chain link fence that looks like all the other fences around construction sites downtown, paints it gold, and calls it art. Meanwhile people can't use the public park to walk their dogs or enjoy the Spring, and bums can't bed down for the night. The only people happy with it are certain elitist MICA students who seem to be flesh-and-blood embodiments of the caricatures Dan Clowes created in Art School Confidential.

Isn't it beautiful?

I especially love the poster at the Sun's Critical Mass blog who told them: "Please graduate and move to Williamsburg ASAP so I don't have to deal with pretentious nonsense like this in my own backyard, which you've stolen from me for two weeks. Thanks for nothing."

Some area residents were so upset by the fence that they plastered "Exclusionist" stickers on the fence, as shown below:

According to the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts' mission statement, "Public Art enhances the cityscape, quality of life and artistic and creative climate in Baltimore. It often encourages civic pride, provides opportunitites for enrichment and sometimes sparks cultured debate." They sure got that last part right!

Freeman laments lost integrity of his work

As I write these words, I've just read that the artist (pictured above) and MICA have backed down and will now open the gates to the four fenced-in Mount Vernon Park squares today - hooray! The people have spoken! The only thing worse than erecting the fence in the first place was the decision to lock the park up in order to "maintain the integrity of the work" (fancy art school mumbo-jumbo for denying public access to a work). But how can you hurt a chain-link fence? They're strong, they're sturdy - they can handle assaults on their "integrity" - that's why they're used all the time around construction sites to keep people out or in prison camps to keep people in!

Passerby mindful to respect integrity of the work

See more comments about the fence at the Sun blog: Fencing Mount Vernon Square.

Male/Female at Penn Station (2004)

In 2004, the City of Baltimore shelled out $750,000 to sculptor Jonathan Borofsky to create a 51-foot-tall aluminum statue entitled "Male/Female" as the centerpiece of the redesigned Penn Station Plaza. It has generated controversy ever since.

Klaatu barada nikto!

Ah yes, the first sight that greets out-of-towners as the leave Penn Station is...absurdity. How can anyone take us seriously looking at this towering quadrupedal sculpture that Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks rightly ridiculed as looking like the robot Gort from the '50s sci-fi flick The Day the Earth Stood Still. Welcome to Baltimore, hon! Now bow down to Gort and say "Klaatu barada nikto!"

Hmmmm, didn't Gort's message mean "We come in peace"? Given Bodymore, Murderland's rep for being a body-count heavy homicide town, maybe there's something to our Penn Station Gort's symbolic pronouncement of peace. I come in peace, please don't kill me!

I think I'm beginning to understand art.

Like Zippy the Pinhead. After a visit to John Hopkins University last year, cartoonist Bill Griffith was quite taken with Male/Female, featuring it in several of of his comic strips. I guess that means it's a sculpture only a pinhead can appreciate?

Final Thoughts on Public Art

Don't get me wrong. I like public art, but only when it's non-invasive and works with - not against - its environment. Male/Female is vertically invasive, an eyesore that obscures the Penn Station building and the surrounding skyline. And the Gold Fence project in Mount Vernon, well...fences have negative connotions, making me think of internment centers and refugee camps. I mean, they erect fences along the Texas-Mexico border to keep immigrants out of the USA, not to celebrate the border or reflect on the artistic nature of the landscape!

But I do like many of the public art murals around town, like John Ellsberry's mural on the marquee of the old Mayfair Theatre on North Howard Street. It makes decorative use of an abandoned building that otherwise would be just another eyesore in an area of urban decay.

And I'd even consider the billboard across from Penn Station - the one depicting Mr. Boh proposing to the Utz Potato Chip Girl - as a more worthy example of good public art than the egregious examples cited above. With its local connections, it certainly meets the Baltimore Art Council's criteria of encouraging civic pride while enhancing the cityscape and sparking cultural debate - in a good and positive way because everyone loves this couple (despite their considerable age difference)!

Engaging Public Art: Mr Boh woos the Utz Girl

Related Links:
Map of Baltimore Public Art


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm still not sure about the Boh/Utz billboard, you've got a Wisconsin beer proposing to a Pennsylvania potato chip.

12:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey. Dont lump all us MICA kids in that pretentious group. I personally think its a terribly negitive project that poorly represents our school. Especially considering how many students go off into the city and work on public projects that actually make this city a little better. Don't lump the kids who are volunteering their time to help bring art programs to schools that need it with this jerk.

Not all of us are cutting off public spaces. I'm just trying to get some animations done.

2:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dunno, Tom. I kinda like Male/Female. It really isn't that much taller than the building it stands next to, and I think it looks really cool. Yes, it sticks out, but that's probably the point. Besides, Gort rules!

But yeah, public art that doesn't require much effort or thought is giving the artist too much credit as an artist. If a city worker puts up a fence, is it art? If a MICA student puts up a fence... well, same question as far as I'm concerned. In my opinion, the work of art in question isn't the fence or the artist who put it there, but all the reactions to it.

2:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there's a lot of contempt expressed in the artist's intent (it's as if Freeman is punishing Baltimoreans for--in his estimation--not adequately appreciating their public space). Also, I'm sensing a lot of arrogance from a kid who seems to have no problem comparing his little spray-paint project to the work of Richard Serra or Christo (see his editorial in yesterday's Sun).
I have an abnormally high tolerance for various controversial public art projects-- giant Scottie dogs, clothespins, and Gort a.k.a. Male/Female are all OK in my book. But this gold chain-link fence is just ick. I am not a fan.

3:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't believe what I'm reading. The male/female statue is an abomination of the classic piece of Baltimore architecture it stands next to. The fact that Baltimore City officials allowed this to happen is outrageous. Contemporary art has no place in front of that particular building, let alone a structure that is nearly the same size as the building itself. It detracts from the architectual beauty of Penn Station. Instead of commissioning a more relevant piece of work such as a large iron fountain or even a garden of some sort, Baltimore City officials settled for a pathetic attempt at a social statement that only further deteriorates Baltimore's heritage.

11:10 AM  
Blogger The Baltimore Babe said...

Wonderfully written! I enjoyed your post thoroughly.

9:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He does not represent the MICA student body as a whole. That's unfair to say MICA students are elitist or stuck-up, etc. The billboard is merely advertising. Public art should be more than that.

11:53 PM  

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