Posted by: bkivey | 14 July 2013

Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

nepenthes portlandThe alternative weekly of record published a review of two recent public art installations in Portland in their 3 July issue.  The first installation reviewed was Nepenthes, a series of four sculptures placed in downtown. The glow-in-the-dark pieces are based on a carnivorous plant, and set the taxpayers back $300,000.

The professional art community’s reaction has been largely negative. The review in Willamette Week uses phrases like “atrocity”, “Garish and cheap-looking”, and “dumbed-down knockoffs of Chihuly glass”. An art gallery director stated “Everyone I know who’s seen them is basically throwing up.” Ouch.

The unwashed plebeians generally have a different take. The comments on the article express support for Nepenthes. I haven’t seen this installation, but I appreciate the organic origins, the patterns and colors, and yes, I think it’s cool they light up at night. And this being Portland, the energy for the light comes from stored energy supplied by solar cells. It’ll be interesting to see how they fare come winter.


iinversion sculptureThis is Inversion +/-, another recent public art installation. The WW critic loved this piece. “perpendicular planes dancing midair in a complex visual fugue.”, “rapturous, ever-evolving dialogue with negative space.”, and “Sublimely elegant” are some of the phrases used to describe it. “It cost $700,000” is another way to describe it. 

And again, the masses are too ignorant to appreciate fine art. I’ve seen this installation, and my opinion is similar to others: it looks like a half-completed building, and doesn’t evoke much feeling beyond “this is a pile of junk”. Again, $700,000.

When I attended Oregon State, the library was chock-c-block with art. Sculptures, paintings, mixed media: it was all there, and there in quantity. The primary motivator for turning a library into what looked like an art warehouse was a state law that requires 1% of the budget for public building construction to be spent on art. The intent is to spend money on art to expose people to things they might not seek out on their own. But like most well-intentioned projects, the law fails in execution. Art, like most things, obeys Sturgeon’s Law. There just isn’t that much of it that’s good.

One can argue that ‘good’ is subjective, especially in a creative field, but the layperson has a good idea of what constitutes ‘good’ art: it should be pleasing to the senses. Good art shouldn’t require a professional education to appreciate. This is especially true when public funds are in play.

The professional arts community is always looking to push boundaries, and that’s fine. That’s part of what art is, but not all of it. Maybe city fathers should take a lesson from the Old Masters. They aren’t known so much for pushing boundaries as for their incredible craftsmanship. The subject matter that appeals to the general public may not be challenging to contemporary artists, but Michelangelo’s David will be renowned long after Inversion +/- has been turned to scrap.






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