Public Art – what it is and what it isn’t.

Proposals and documentation toward a large-scale art project along the Schuylkill River were on view November 17-28 in the Artists’ Gallery at Reading’s Goggleworks. The purpose of the exhibition was to provide opportunity for public comment on the works. The final decisions, however, are not a public matter.Public Art is essentially art by committee – so the artwork that results from this process will be a distillation of the proposals and the decision-making apparatus. The other operative definition of “public art” is that it has very little to do with the public, other than the fact that it is imposed from above upon generally uninterested – and sometimes downright unaccepting – citizens. This has been the history of very many, if not most, pieces of public art one encounters in communities across the country. The reason for this is that the sort of art produced by contemporary artists and funded by patrons and institutions is generally elitist. Its true audience is the small group of cognoscenti who explain it to the rest of us as if art were some sort of mysterious language for the initiated. In any event, these four proposals ultimately are to be judged according to their merit (whatever that may mean), their practicability as regards issues of safety and politically correct views, and their correspondence to the announced political goal of the funding organizations. I’ll quote here from the Press Release:“Art & Community Landscapes is an artist-in-residency program created by the National Park Service, National Endowment for the Arts, and the New England Foundation for the Arts. It aims to support public art that will become a catalyst for environmental awareness in selected communities.”As for “environmental awareness,” only the insensate have not noticed that a river flows through Reading.To describe these tedious proposals, I’ll quote again from the Press Release:Schuylkill River Trail PassagesBy Peter Jon Snyder, of Reading, and Peter Kenney of Pennsauken, N.J.Proposal: To create a series of monumental arches along the Schuylkill River Trail, using recycled railroad rails, aluminum, stone and mosaic tiles. The arches would also include photographs of landmarks along the river and trail and motion-triggered speakers playing environmentally-inspired sounds. Teams of local artists, children and neighborhood groups would assist with construction.Lamps and LookoutsBy Brenda Brown, of Gainesville, FL, and Linnea Tillet, of Brooklyn, NYProposal: To install a series of viewing platforms and seating areas that would provide visual access and connect people to the river. The platforms would be constructed of locally inspired materials reminiscent of the river’s industrial legacy. Lampposts featuring interchangeable shades designed by community groups would also be erected, casting reflections upon the water.Moving WatersBy Stacy Levy, of Spring Mills, PAProposal: To construct artistically inspired docks and floating platforms that would provide increased public access to the river, and inspire people to learn about the river by having a fun personal experience. Ramps, gangways and platforms would serve as launch points for paddlers and staging areas for boating and river education programs.Schuylkill ConfluenceBy Herb Parker, of Charleston, SCProposal: To construct a cave-like enclosure at the confluence of the Schuylkill River and the Tulpehocken Creek. Inspired by a 16th Century garden sculpture, the enclosure would be in the shape of a head that appears to rise out of the embankment. It would be accessed via an opening in the mouth, as well as by a ramp from Confluence Park.*Peter Jon Snyder is a local artist whose work I have always admired for its humor and lack of pretension. His proposal begins that way – the arches and structures are entertaining and somewhat engaging. However, the inclusion of less-than-good poetry by Peter Kinney adds nothing unpretentious to the matter at hand. The other multimedia bells and whistles do not add significantly to the collaboration, And the inclusion of some sort of homage to the Native-American Lenape Tribe is uncalled for.The one nice thing about Brenda Brown’s Lamps and Lookouts is that its essential aspects – lights and lookouts – could be executed at a fraction of the cost by a series of light fixtures and gazebos built by carpenters and electricians. That’s the sort of “public art” that makes sense to me. In this instance, I prefer inexpensive useful things.Stacy Levy’s Moving Waters is as dangerous as it is unnecessary. To achieve the artist’s goals as stated above one needs nothing more than is already present – the river itself. If the river doesn’t beckon citizens – I doubt that a piece of artwork will.Herb Parker’s head-shaped sculpture proposal is at least entertaining in a conventional sense. The cave is unnecessary but I can imagine citizens amused by a 3-D cartoon on the riverbank.The unresolvable issue here is conflating the needs and desires of four very different segments of society that have highly problematic relationships to each other – politicians, cultural and economic power-brokers, artists, and the general public – into this thing called “public art.” The problem is that the people who it is intended to benefit have very little interest in it.

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