Depending on who
you talk to, the 40 foot sculpture in front of Baltimore's Penn Station is
either a work of art or an expensive abomination. The work is called
"Male/female," and it's both, which probably already tells
you why it is very disturbing to many people. The
work's size and location put it in company with some other very large civic works
of "art" which have caused similar outcries in other major metropolitan
I grew up in the Cleveland area, and one of the
relics of my childhood was a piece of art called "free stamp." It is, in
essence, a very large rubber stamp, turned on its side, with the word
"free" on the bottom. If the Statue of Liberty, say, were trying to get that book of hers
renewed at the local library, and Godzilla's much larger great aunt was
the librarian, she might use that bit of art to stamp the back jacket of
the book with the word "free." Surprisingly, most Clevelanders could find
no use for the thing. And so when it was first installed in front of a
very public building downtown a great howl of protest came in from all
sides--or at least from the ones who do not regularly visit art museums,
and were not happy at all when part of the museum came to them.
This is most people, in fact. Since the free stamp was basically a
really gigantic representation of a common item, there was a great deal
of head scratching over how such a trivial piece of hardware could be
rendered so much larger than life and plopped in front of a public
building in the middle of downtown. If I remember correctly, the artist
who wore out his fertile brain coming up with the design had also been
responsible for, oh, a gigantic stapler in Chicago or a huge paperclip
in Toronto. Don't quote me on it, but it was something to that effect.
His medium, if you will, was taking common household objects,
supersizing them, and leaving them in very public places. This type
of thing has been quite trendy in the art world over the last
half-century, and a lot of people will tell you that these so-called
artists have quite simply lost their marbles.
The item in Baltimore doesn't have too much more style than the items
just mentioned. It is not a realistic model of a human; it is more like
a stick figure. Or a chalk outline. It is meant to be very simple and bold. Simple and bold
is really "in" in the art world these days. In its entirety the piece
consists of two flat "gingerbread people" placed perpendicular to one
another and intersecting in the middle. In that middle is one neon
heart which they both share and which is the only colorful portion of
the exhibit. It glows at night.
Something that rudimentary almost has to be symbolic
of something, which is an annoyance to average Americans. Every time a
work of art pops up there will be somebody to tell us what it means.
This readily distinguishes the ones who "know" from the ones who don't
"know," or the rest of us.
At the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympics I saw
an interesting exhibit. A man was very adroitly walking across the top
of a rotating cube suspended a hundred feet in the air. The announcer
cut in and informed us that that artistic moment symbolized man's climb
toward civilization-- because a
man climbing on a hovering cube doesn't cut mustard unless it is really
just code for a really grand cosmos-shaking vision. Fortunate for us
that the commentator didn't quiz us on this, he just gave us the answer
key. The rather patronizing assumption from which this view of art springs is that the
viewer would never be able come to a sufficiently edifying
interpretation on their own, which may
well be the fault of the art itself, or that there is only one "proper"
way of interpreting it. It also plagues people who think that the last
half century in art has been an assault on common sense because, one
wonders, if every work of art is merely a representation of something else, why
not just come out and say it, and save the rigamarole? If what you are
trying to get at in the long run is simply a basic truth about mankind,
why take the long way around?
Despite the laconic explanation, I still found the cube
intriguing, which is not an adjective that has gotten itself applied to
the "male/female" statue. Many people call it "ugly" which automatically
disqualifies it, in their opinions, since art is supposed to consist of
"pretty pictures." Art is supposed to be something you can stand in
front of and say simply "that's nice" before moving on to do something
that really matters. That's pretty hard to do with a massive,
androgynous statue that doesn't quite remind us of anything we've seen
One way or another, this object is now mandatory viewing
for anyone traveling uptown along Baltimore's main artery, North Charles
street, particularly if you have to catch a train. And it is causing a
lot of debate. Which is just fine with some people, who figure that
debate is practically what makes it art in the first place.
Challenging people's basic assumptions hasn't always been
considered the hallmark of great art. For a long time, art was something
that required a great deal of discipline and perseverance. It was a
craft. It showed us what was beautiful in the world and in our own
souls. It was a demanding mistress. It is hard for someone who has spent
years learning his craft the hard way to consider that putting a great
big stapler in Times Square deserves mention as a work of art.
Surely this is too easy.
Obviously there is an element of hucksterism about things
of this sort. John Q. Public could smell that right away. John Q.
did not like being told that he did not have the artistic vision to
comprehend the importance of the supersized sledgehammer on Main Street.
As a person who has spent years learning the technical craft of playing
a musical instrument and patiently harvesting the insights of the
imagination it is tempting to join the voices of those who think that
this is not art, it is a put-on.
Except for one thing. I happen to be a big fan of one
rather undervalued human activity: thinking. Having to deal with
something that doesn't conform to our expectations may cause us to
reevaluate those expectations, or at least to realize how fluid some of
them are. How things we assume are universal or immutable perhaps
aren't. It helps us to adapt. Having everything called art conform to
something we've already seen and liked doesn't do that. In other words,
art should be a little irritating, some of the time.
I was at my local Subway a couple of months ago and
noticed that they have determined to improve their image a bit with a
simple word-choice. They don't refer to their employees as simply the
people who make your sandwiches. Oh no. Now they are "sandwich artists."
I don't think that the people who ask you to choose between three types
of bread are sharing an artistic vision. And just because they are
capable of making your sandwich with or without tomato doesn't make them
Van Gogh. But obviously, the folks at Subway realized that to many of
us, whether or not we've had any contact at all with anything that could
really be called art in the last year, the term "artist" invites awe.
Which is why the music industry likes to pass the term out like free
pharmaceuticals. Now everybody who sings for money is a "recording
artist." About the only people in the music industry who do not get
referred to as artists are the actual artists. The functionaries have
taken over the title. It's good marketing.
Some of these "artists" couldn't actually write one of
the tunes they sing to save their lives because they don't know anything
about how music is constructed. Some of them can barely carry a
tune. Now if we call these persons, and the ones who make your
sandwiches, artists, is there not room for the guy with visions of
gargantuan hardware terrorizing Metropolis?
There is one difference. And I am reluctant to share it
because I am not really sure the "male/female" sculpture is really worth
the approbation. But the designer went out on a limb. He wasn't
satisfying a consumer demand with a time-tested, profitable, and safe
little item he could sell over and over. He didn't conform either
(except perhaps to members of his own artistic clique). Sure,
you are saying to yourself, how hard is it to take a thumb-tack, make it
really huge, and stick it in front of the Prudential building? Any
nitwit could have done it. But, really now, honestly, could you?
You wouldn't, I'll bet. Because you think it would be silly. It is a
little too far from normal. Your friends
would laugh at you. Social norms are just a little too strong for you.
The prospect of swimming upstream just doesn't hold any appeal.
But somebody did. They redefined our world. Just a
little. And maybe not for the better. Maybe without trying too hard. I
don't know if they deserve the title of Artist with a big "A." But I'd
rather it be him than the guy who doesn't know when to quit with the