Kitsch or art?

I enjoyed reading in the American Profile insert in today’s paper about the sculptures of Seward Johnson. I didn’t even notice, as I was reading, that the very first example is located in Hamilton, New Jersey, where we lived for eight years. Only later, as I was searching online to find out where more of his work is located, did I remember the sculptures outside the public library in Hamilton.

I also realized, as I surfed the web, how much opinions differ about Johnson’s work. The article in American Profile had mentioned that “art critics called his work kitschy and unoriginal,” but that sounded merely dismissive. If something is kitschy, it seems to me that the artist or art critic can simply ignore it.

But I guess art critics are bothered by how much ordinary people like Johnson’s work. Is it because that means less money – and perhaps prestige – will go to those the critics consider true artists? Do they think the public will be less likely to recognize the merits of what they (the critics) consider good art?

This review disparages Johnson’s sculptures as “the worst of what public art has increasingly become” because it does “very little to ignite or challenge the viewer’s imagination” and because it fails to “highlight the uniqueness of a place .” It’s pretty hard to tell from photos online how much Johnson’s sculptures lack “depth of emotion and humanity” compared to the work of John Ahearn (whose work the review praises). Perhaps they do.

But the charge that Johnson’s is not good public art because it is not “site-specific” assumes a particular definition of what comprises good public art: “Public art has a specific role to play in a city.  It should highlight the uniqueness of a place — its people, its history, its landscape — and it should help to connect that specificity to the people who live and work there.”

That’s the reviewer’s opinion. But it seems to me an unnecessarily limited view of the purpose of public art. So what if a man hailing a cab is so common as to be an “urban cliché” that could fit easily into any large city? For long-time city dwellers, there may be characteristics that make each particular city unique. But the reality that many people live is that life in one city is very much like another. Why is it so bad that public art reflect that fact?

According to American Profile’s article, Johnson’s sculptures “celebrate Americans being American.” So maybe they’re “site-specific” to this country, even if not to one neighborhood or even one city. For a lot of Americans, it’s a good thing that to celebrate what we have in common, as well as what makes us unique.

According to this analysis, the purpose of public art includes “artistic self-expression; community dialogue; education and enjoyment; inspiring participation in appreciation and creation of art; community problem solving; enhancement of the physical infrastructure and environment; and demarcation, celebration and transformation of place.”

Certainly Johnson’s sculptures fulfill some of those goals. Johnson expresses himself, and people enjoy it and see it as an enhancement of the public space. Probably some of those who see it are inspired to create art of their own. (Though perhaps art critics would not think much of their art either.)

I struggle myself with appreciating art that I do not understand. Sometimes I will see something I don’t really understand but something about it intrigues me and makes me want to understand it better. Other times, though, I just can’t see what makes it worthy of public display.

There have been exhibitions of artwork in recent months at the college (where I work) that leave me wondering what it’s supposed to mean. At least, I assume it’s supposed to mean something. Each work has a title, which I assume relates to the piece in some meaningful way, but in most cases I can’t figure out what that is.

There is a certain aesthetic appeal in some of the artworks, just in their shape or color or composition. But then, there is a certain aesthetic appeal in a lot of well-made objects that aren’t considered art. Like the people quoted in the American Profile article who appreciated Johnson’s work because they could understand it, I appreciate art more when I understand it.

I have seen – and enjoyed – lifelike statues other than Johnson’s. I’m not sure exactly what the appeal of them is. Seeing art in the middle of the city where it is not expected? Seeing ordinary people and ordinary experience deemed worthy of immortalization? Perhaps just seeing art that does not seem to take itself too seriously.

I’m glad there are a lot of people who do appreciate Seward Johnson’s sculptures. And I’m glad he didn’t let the disdain of the art critics dissuade him from continuing to create them.

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