Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Guild, church, and king, rolled into one.

In my experience--and I'm no expert on the artistic community--being an artist and an analytic thinker are negatively correlated. I've met a few exceptions, certainly, and there's little doubt that Leonardo Da Vinci had or Helaman Ferguson has understanding of mathematics, but in general logic and reason take a back-seat to touchy-feely rhetoric.

Leave it, then, to an artist to turn a debate over whether or not a city should spend millions of dollars on a piece of public art into a question of the artistic merit of the intended work, in this case a large kite designed by Janet Echelman. To quote sculptor Joan Baron, as told to the Arizona Republic:
"The city should do everything in its power to make sure this piece is installed," Baron said. "The work is significant and would be a major contribution to the public-art collection of Phoenix. People shouldn't be afraid of it, but welcome it."

The work is significant, QED. To a person with vulgar expectations of government, that is really the end of the question. Transferred to the modern state are the expectations the medieval man had of guild, church, and king, hence it is patron of the arts. Good art deserves patronage the same way good boys deserve their allowance.

Perhaps it doesn't occur to Baron that Phoenicians would prefer that the city do "everything in its power" to patch potholes, fight crime in poor neighborhoods, or make it easier to prosper by lowering sales and property taxes, or, superlatives being the mark of sloppy minds, at least prefer that such things take priority over fancy kites meant to evoke a cactus blossom. And the public's discontent on learning that city ordinance requires the money to be spent on art seems to strike her as the mark of savagery, of people "afraid" of a mass of wire and mesh resembling a moon jelly.

Cities own parks, and parks hold artwork. For sane advocates of limited government, this is far from ideal, but so benign that it's probably of lower concern than the public library. Perhaps it's a side-effect of economic liberalism itself. But we can at the very least expect that such parks be managed responsibly. There's certainly a declining return between six thousand dollar sculptures like the one Baron is doing for Tempe and multimillion dollar projects like Echelman's. Moreover, it's about time to insist that those who say It Would Be Nice ought to put their money where their mouth is. Public art is more properly the domain of the benevolent association and the Chamber of Commerce than something so important as to be funded by compulsory taxation. Echelman ought be reminded that no city at all built the Eiffel Tower (or the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, for that matter) and that most public art in the USA, including quite a few major works, either belongs to private institutions or was funded with private money.

Moreover, the public's concerns shouldn't be dismissed as fear of art. As Virginia Postrel explained in The Substance of Style, the negative aesthetic externality is very real and the looks of objects in plain view can involve a balancing of legitimate interests. If the neighbors or the park's current users think the cactus blossom or jellyfish is unsightly, that should be taken into account.

Phoenecians would do well to throw the city officials who let the passionate flim-flam of artists outweigh the tastes of those footing the billout of office, and to use the initiative process to dump the ordinance establishing a lock-box for art funds while they're at it. The matter will likely be forgotten in a few months; I predict no change.

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