“Pure crap, and unbelievably stupid!”: Milwaukee’s love affair with public art continues
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Nothing brings Milwaukee’s blood to a boil faster than public art. Sure, hot weather and scary crowds always manage to get our goat, and plastic garden gnomes (and the hoarders who love them) are good for an argument or two. But it seems that whenever an innocent, innocuous sculpture or statue is proposed for our fair city, we really lose our shit. From the Blue Shirt debacle of the early ’00s to the more recent Bronze Fonz and Janet Zweig dustups, Milwaukee just can’t seem to get its beret-clad head out of its backwoods ass.
And to paraphrase Whitesnake: Here we go again (on our own). Yesterday, Mary Louise Schumacher of the Journal Sentinel reported on a new public art project that has already whipped up its fair share of controversy:
Finalists for the largest publicly funded art commission in recent memory—including a giant wildflower, a towering tuning fork, harp-like bronzes and a futuristic Lady Justice—will be unveiled Wednesday.
Competition for the $700,000 commission attracted more than 250 artists from across the country, including several luminaries. Three artists and one artist team have been named finalists for the commission.
Ultimately, the selected artwork is destined for a prominent spot near the south entrance of the Milwaukee County Courthouse.
Sounds harmless, right? Not so fast. The 100-plus comments on Schumacher’s story are pretty much what you would expect from the Journal Sentinel: ignorant, depressing, and hopelessly dumb. Everyone is suddenly an art critic (“I could have done a better job using junk from our basement and for FREE”), and everyone is absolutely outraged—outraged!—that $700,000 of our money (not to mention some dough from the federal government) is being pissed away on a “hunk of art.” Never mind that that money is intended solely for the purpose of said hunks of art. Asking why that cash isn’t being used for something more “useful” is like asking why all the money Doritos spends during the Super Bowl can’t be used for improving schools. Or, I don’t know, why federal stimulus money for a high-speed rail can’t be used for roads.
As for the actual proposed hunks of art, I think they’re all okay. (How’s that for a ringing endorsement?) Unlike the neo-expressionists and romantic impressionists that make up the JS readership, I’m no expert. Still, I knows what I likes, and if I had to bet on which one we’ll likely end up with, I’d put good money on the flower. (Yeah, I know, it’s a flower, but it’s clearly the best of the bunch.) The “harp-like bronzes” look like they’re on loan from Caesar’s Palace, the Lady Justice thing is just plain lousy, and the tuning fork is a little too slim and slight for the imposing courthouse. (Not to mention weird—the artist claims the sculpture will emit a faint hum that matches the “tonal center pitch of our Sun.” Um, far out?)
But the winner of this public art cage match doesn’t interest me. (If County Executive Chris Abele has his druthers, there may not even be a winner.) What really gets my blood boiling is the inane “controversy” that erupts every time someone wants to erect a lousy statue in this town. Aren’t we better than that? Haven’t we gotten past the point where a little unexpected artistic expression in a public place doesn’t send us scurrying back to our darkened apartments?
Yes, I know, the common refrain is that no matter how ignorant and depressing the outrage gets, it’s all worth it if only to promote a “dialogue.” Hey, we’re actually talking about art! Isn’t that a good thing? Well, I don’t think it is. It’s dull, boring, and makes us look like the clueless huckleberries we aren’t. I know that public art is a hot-button issue everywhere (I’m looking at you, Robocop), and I know that a few dozen JS commenters do not a city make, but this shit is just getting tired. What’s even more infuriating is that the uproar will be forgotten just as soon as the damn thing is built. I imagine this whole situation will play out like last year’s smoking ban: People will piss and moan for months; the flower (or maybe the tuning fork) will finally spring up; and everyone will get used to it in 30 seconds.
Of course, another public art proposal will inevitably bubble up in a few years, and we’ll have to suffer through more bon mots like this, courtesy of JS commenter apaladino2150:
“A complete waste of money. Was there a huge demand for a $700,000 piece of artwork? Will we be better off with this? Will this make a difference in someone’s life (artist not included)?”
Or this, from Izzatso:
“Pure crap, and unbelievably stupid. Our tax dollars wasted AGAIN.”
This isn’t a dialogue; it’s an embarrassment. And we wonder why we can’t have nice things.