Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Evening Note for Tuesday, February 14

Thought for the Evening

Jon Day, The Problem of Public Sculpture, notes the common disinterest, and sometimes hostility, of the public toward a great deal of public sculpture. In the course of doing so, I think it very clearly indicates what one should not do in public sculpture. For instance, one of the ideas that was guiding the public sculptures discussed was 'obtrusiveness' -- a perhaps more appropriate term than the person who used it realized, since obtrusiveness is an impertinent pushing of oneself on another's attention. Needless to say, the public tends not to approve of the obtrusive. Even more obvious is the case of the sculptor who thought that the problem of public sculpture was all about the public and not about the sculpture. Is there any surprise that people dislike something that is presented from such a posture of arrogance. It is one thing to defend one's work on its own merits; it is another to act as if you were entitled to people's attention and approval.

I think it's reasonable for people to be skeptical of much public artwork; it has a tendency to communicate poorly. I've mentioned the installation at the Milwood Branch Public Library in Austin, which is optimistically titled, "Learning to Fly", but which I can never see without titling it, "Invasion of the Zombie Children". And it's actually not all that bad; it is not obtrusive -- it's a set of sculptures in a landscaped area with trees and rocks so it does not force itself on you, and it is competently done. You would never guess beforehand that it represented children learning to fly, but once you are told it makes a certain amount of sense; you can actually see the point when it is pointed out to you, which is more than one often can. But it still shows the gap between the sculptor's intent and the public's reception.

What people want -- and in a real sense need -- from public sculpture is not obtrusiveness but disponibilité, a sort of at-your-service-ness. The problem with the obtrusiveness approach is that it demands that the public be disponible to the sculpture; unsurprisingly, the public tends to have its own attitudes. People have strong reactions against ugly things, for instance, that they can't avoid looking at; the imposition of what is not pleasing is quite naturally resented. At the same time, they tend to be much more tolerant even of ugly things if those things in some sense are at their service; an ugly statue children can play on will be tolerated more than an equally ugly statue that nobody can do anything with. Surprise and provocation are not only fine but assets -- if it is surprising or provocative pleasantness or usefulness. There was an old Arts and Crafts maxim that you should only have things that are useful or beautiful in your house; a similar maxim would be a reasonable approximation for things in the larger dwelling of our public spaces. Public sculptures are expressions of public rhetoric; like other forms of rhetoric, they have for their ends delight, utility, and education, in varying proportions.

In Washington, DC, there is a fairly innocuous statue of John Witherspoon near Dupont Circle. Witherspoon, of course, was a significant Founding Father; he signed the Declaration of Independence and played a significant role in establishing Princeton as the sort of school that could turn out -- well, that could turn out Founding Fathers. I doubt most people pay much attention to it at all. But it serves as a marker, available for those interested. Originally, the statue was across the street from a Presbyterian church, which was one of the reasons the location was chosen, Witherspoon being a Presbyterian minister; the church is no longer there, but as long as it was, the church every year would host a service and some minor festivities, so it originally served as a way for the local community to engage with its patriotic heritage. As far as I know, there is nothing like that done today, but it is still available should anyone wish to use it, and people occasionally hunt it out for history walks and the like. It is not obtrusive; it is disponible.

Links of Note

* Ernesto Priani, Ramon Llull, at the SEP

* Miriam Burstein does a little detective work on a quotation misattribution spanning more than a century.

* Thony Christie looks at the myth that it is easier to divide and multiply with Hindu-Arabic numerals than with Roman numerals.

* Interview with Richard Cohen on Levinas and Spinoza, at "The Book of Doctrines and Opinions"

* I had intended long before to link to Rob Alspaugh's post on the structure of Aquinas's Prima Secunda but it got sandwiched between the wrong tabs in the browser and so I kept not noticing it when doing links.

Currently Reading

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone
Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth
Mary Beard, SPQR
Lois McMaster Bujold, Cryoburn
Jean Beathke Elshtain, Sovereignty: God, State, and Self
Dietrich von Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler

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