Stella Cretek

Milwaukee sinks

By - May 22nd, 2008 02:52 pm
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Milwaukee has some awful public art (revolting!), and some successful public art. (sublime!) Well, we aren’t the only cities suffering from bad public art. Google “Bad Public Art” and you’ll get my drift. The Art Newspaper reports that “statues in Britain are Revolting – and so are we.” They call it an “epidemic of Frankenstein Monster Memorials.” One such monster was tagged with the suggestion, “remove this tin can.” A colossal sculpture of a couple embracing is described as “a couple who have just been refused a mortgage.” Another, depicting Nelson Mandella with outstretched arms, is quipped as “ Mandella describing the size of a fish he may have caught in his angling days.” You’ve got to hand it to the Brits’ wits.

It’s no laughing matter when these disasters are parked on our front lawns, which is to say our public spaces – though if you pay attention, there are some disasters on private lawns. Bad art is viral in nature. It spreads and multiplies and divides. We’re stuck with it until it rusts, crumbles, is carted off, or hidden from sight.

Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin is being bombarded by a federal arts panel who object to the depiction of Martin Luther King Jr., the model of which will become a 28-foot-tall statue. “Too confrontational,” wailed the panel. An image of the clay model was posted on AOL in May, and since everyone out there claims to be an art critic, it was put up to a vote. Milwaukee has a MLK sculpture on MLK Drive. In 2003, an 8’ x 16’ painting depicting Mr. King and various black leaders was removed from the County Courthouse’s public rotunda to a less public area. County Executive Scott Walker led the charge on the removal, causing the (then) director of the Haggerty Museum to snipe, “It’s not the job of lawyers and judges and police officers to be censuring public art.” The Haggerty had loaned the Courthouse the painting, which maybe proves it’s unwise to look a gift horse in the mouth. The flip side is that Marquette has a really bad sculpture memorializing Pere Marquette. It’s near their glorious, perfectly proportioned chapel on the west end of the campus.

In the wake of Mary Louise Schumacher’s (MJS art critic) article about the proposed two-story bronze disaster memorializing lives lost in the sinking of the Lady Elgin, numerous comments, pro and con, have washed up on the media shore. A few argue for a public arts administrator to oversee what stuff goes where; others argue against that tactic and cry out for public input across the board. But who is the “public,” and why would masses of people with varying tastes be more effective? I vote for a public art administrator who knows what art is.

There’s another question involved in this flap, a very basic question … what’s the point of memorializing folks who went down with the ship? Why are we looking back and wringing our hands instead of moving forward? If you wander south on Water St. in the Third Ward, you’ll find a handsome plaque that notes the disaster. It’s modest and appropriate. It doesn’t shout; it informs. A better plan is to visit Calvary Cemetery and stare at the actual tombstones of some who perished. They’re near the section memorializing the Cudahy family. But would most people go there simply to be reminded of the sinking of the ship? No.

It seems that misguided folks are seeking Milwaukee’s “Titanic.” Hey, we’ve already got that. It’s the monster parking garage on Downer Avenue.

Categories: Dem Bones

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