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Sandwich Artist      

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 areas.

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 before.

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 mayonnaise.


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