I Hate This Art

Publicly Funded Mediocrity


I met Sequoia when we attended Moore College of Art and Design, an undisclosed amount of time ago. She holds a BFA for Fashion Design and Art History and was the first student at Moore to earn this dual major. We reconnected through her project Art in Bars, where she gave me one of my first shows, at a Salon in Northern Liberties. Through this initiative she sought to promote emerging artists, alternative exhibition spaces, and art outside of the gallery scene. I chose Sequoia to write for Curate This because she knows something about everything. She can talk jive about everything from pop culture, to Julia Child’s recipes, to Native American art history, all while kicking your ass at Settlers of Catan. Enjoy her commentary on public art!

-Kelly Kozma, curator

There is an icebreaking game I play at parties: What’s your least favorite piece of public art? It’s an excellent conversation starter; people love to hate, and the responses come quickly—The Franklin head on The Parkway and the lumpy figures atop Society Hill. Someone names a mural they find trite, and another will dismiss the proliferation of Zagars. The holographic columns at Broad and Washington and the Comcast figures are among some of the unpopular public art pieces.

Without fail, William King’s Stroll will be mentioned.

You are aware of Stroll, perhaps. If you’ve found yourself at the terminus of South Street, or looked up at the right time while speeding down I-95, you’ve seen the stiff steel stick figures lumbering atop the pedestrian bridge, and the large and inconsequential sculptural installation attempting to bridge the city to the river. You know it, generally, but the details are imprecise. The number of figures. The proportions.

Why does it matter? Stroll an old work, in a style not currently in fashion. The artist is dead. It’s innocuous. It’s not even hateable, truly, because of its stifling mediocrity. How can one passionately argue against something that has nothing to say for itself?

Public art is an expression of a city, a visual of its pride and priorities, where the powers that be put that One Percent. The casual visitor or citizen often only interact with our public art, and only when said public art—sanctioned and “street”—presents itself in their path. These accidental encounters form the subconscious opinion of the creative capital of a city.

It is easy to despair and disparage the top grossing echelon of the contemporary art market, the dizzying sales commanded at art fairs and auctions. To argue about the demerits of artists who don’t craft their own work, the lazy, self-devouring orobus of art coopting the images of advertising, brands, popular culture, and regurgitating the pantheon of art history. Who deserves placement in the hallowed halls of our prestigious museums? But what of the creep of the insidious mundane, the bland and flat that is given the meager funds, the casual eyeballs?

It’s the flatness that niggles. Even under the rationalization of simplification Stroll is a failure. The stick figures are rigid in their stride, negating the implication of motion, emotion, and opinion. The material is pragmatic and inexpressive. The scale of the sculpture is off, neither comfortably visible by pedestrians, nor does it impress by dwarfing the viewer. The arrangement is inconsequential and uninspired.

It is easy for the layperson to trot out the tired cliche of, “I could have done that” when belittling a work of art, yet that argument is never presented when Stroll is being debated. It’s never, “I could have done that,” but just “why?” Stroll elicits a shrug.

King is capable of other similar figurative work that at least achieves whimsy—which, while not challenging concept, would be an improvement on the heavy humorlessness of Stroll. Stroll is a street sign, bereft of statement, heft, insight, or joy. It is utilitarian without the satisfaction of good design. Stroll is an irritation because it fails as an expression. It exists, large but uncommenting, stating nothing. Despite the scale of the work, it frequently fails to register with public audience, who pass through it unawares, and depart without it having made an impression.

Think of all the sculpture in Philadelphia that is just lousy with interaction. The area around City Hall and the Parkway is teeming with people actively living with their public art—adults passing by murals mid-commute, children clambering about and around sculptural installations. And then think of the joylessness of Stroll hovering at the edge of the city, above the freeway. The lack of play. The lack of awareness.

I think of the stumbled-upon works of all styles from the past hundred and fifty years hidden away in the recesses of Fairmount park, those with plaques frequently indicating their relocation from previous places of importance. Stroll can’t be discretely shuffled off in a future round of public improvement—where else could it possibly exist? It is site-specific to the point of dullness.

Interesting new work is constantly being added in the public sphere, yet Stroll will remain in the public eye as example of what Philadelphia views as fundable, always mentioned when quizzed as to the worst piece of public art.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to struggle to play that party game?

Photo by Christopher William Purdom.

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