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.

Image by Caleb Rochester

My Problem with the Arts in Philadelphia

What the Mural Machine Left Behind

Caleb Rochester has the unique and sought after skill of creating work that is totally uninfluenced by others. This might be because, to my knowledge, Caleb doesn’t care about the “art world.” Trends and movements don’t interest him. His pieces are the kinds of mini masterworks that seem to only be achieved by those who have an inherent gift and no formal training. He has also lived in Philadelphia for decades and has seen a lot more than most of us.

-Adam Peditto, curator

As a native of this city, I have seen the evolution of the mural industry in Philadelphia from its humble beginnings thirty years ago into a large, well-funded, and fairly famous machine today.

The original incarnation of the Mural Arts Program was the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN), which still exists today. Mayor Wilson Goode started the program in 1984. It had a low budget and a novel concept. In an effort to eradicate graffiti from the city, kids who were arrested for defacing property were forced to paint murals instead.

Image by Caleb Rochester

These kids were supervised by artists fresh out of school. The typical mural crew might be six “graffiti writers” and one “real” artist with a bunch of brushes and buckets of paint. The crew would set up scaffolding in front of a blank wall, whip up a design on the spot and start painting. Sometimes the neighbors would put in their two cents in the beginning and sometimes not. The kids often could not draw, and frequently knew nothing about art. Some of the murals that they painted were very strange. Some of them were stupid and some of them were hilarious.

Image by Caleb Rochester

Most of the weirdest ones are long gone. They have been painted over by the now organized Mural Arts Program, or built over with new buildings, or destroyed along with the buildings they were painted on.

One day in the 90’s I stumbled on one of the “survivors” in South Philly. I think it was somewhere around 20th and Tasker, but I’m not sure. I’ve actually gone looking for it a few times since, but I could never find it.

Image by Caleb Rochester

The elements in the painting seemed like they could have been chosen at random, yet also seemed to be telling a story of some kind. Let’s see if I can put this the right way: the painting was more than one thing. It was a badly-executed painting telling a poorly articulated story, but it had a mystery to it, like ancient hieroglyphics from a forgotten civilization.

Image by Caleb Rochester

When you take it out of the context of that forgotten civilization, the story does not make sense. The place and time where this mural came from is gone.

I have never forgotten that mural. I only saw it once, and I’ve never seen a photo of it. The stained glass window is a TRIBUTE. I drafted it out of memory.

Image by Caleb Rochester

Group Motion, Manfred Fischbeck_small

Real Talk

The Daily Art of Dreaming

Manfred Fischbeck is a fierce champion for dance and embodied practice as a revolutionary force. He’s played a huge role in shaping Philadelphia’s experimental dance culture since his arrival on the scene in 1968, when he came from Berlin with co-directors Brigitta Herrmann and Hellmut Gottschild, and their young modern dance company Group Motion. Manfred has been the company’s sole director since 1989.

When I came to Philadelphia I joined the company right out of college, where I had studied dance in a conservatory program. Manfred’s mentorship helped me unlearn the conservative strictures that had bound my body during four years of classical training, while still encouraging physical virtuosity. His mentorship helps young dancers embrace a deeply investigative, often improvisational approach that results in making powerful artists, not just powerful dancers. Philadelphia’s dance climate would absolutely not be the same without his profound influence. I asked Manfred to choose which of the Curate This prompts to respond to. Because of his deeply philosophical engagement with dance as an art form, and his commitment to advocating for dance as a force for community empowerment, I had a hunch that he’d follow a prompt that led him into social commentary, and it turned out that my instinct was right.

– Curator Megan Bridge

When the Group Motion Company performed a site specific dance in public art sites along the Parkway in Philadelphia in 2009, the dancers wore the music of Phil Kline on their bodies, in the form of belts with iPods and speakers attached. The final piece, a structured improvisation, was performed in front of the LOVE sculpture on JFK Plaza. I carried a boombox playing the same music to boost the low tech iPod speakers. Next to me stood an about 14-year-old African American boy. He seemed excited. When the dance was over, he ran to the dancers, hugged them and told them “you changed my life.” This was one of the most meaningful outcomes of our project, which had attracted both intentional and incidental (passers by, “happening to run into it”) audiences. Incidentally, we did not make money with this performance because it happened in public space, which was a problem for one of our funders.

The social issue that this event illuminates for me and brings into my consciousness is the cultural segregation, exclusivity, and alienation which I find in most of the cultural and artistic happenings in this city (or this country) that I know of. It comes in the form of $75 ticket prices for shows on the so called “high art” level, but also in the form of the insider art “crowd” (if you can call it that) on the “experimental” level, or in the form of no art in public schools, or in the form of segregation of genres and neighborhoods.

From another perspective cultural segregation is about the capitalism of art, with making money as the primary intention; it is about the privilege of “winning” art competitions of all kinds, where the right access, connections, or popular and trendy ideas often move an artist to the top, while thousands if not millions of “talents” never even get a chance. This capitalism also comes in the form of having to be concerned with competing for “Artistic Excellence” (defined by whoever sits on the granting or funding panels); or the “My Work, My Voice” and “Becoming Rich and Famous” syndromes as primary concerns, when we put the criteria of finding our artistic niche or doing something “new” before the question of what we really want to say, or what is needed to be said for the good of all.

J.S. Bach, one of history’s great musical geniuses, wrote under each of his compositions “soli deo gloria” (only for the glory of God), while he was working hard as a cantor and school teacher, producing a cantata for every Sunday service at his church, as well as composing numerous masterworks in all musical genres. In doing so he revolutionized the field of music—and was practically unknown until he was discovered 100 years later. Remarkably, his music is still making full impact on cultures across the planet today.

Hopi legend has it that at the beginning of their history the tribe was living in a lush country environment with rich harvests. The elders, when noticing that some people wanted to have more than they needed, decided to move the tribe into the most desolate place in the desert of Arizona, where they still are today. Over time the Hopi developed one of the most artistic and peace loving cultures in Native America, where art and ritual became part of daily life.

The American (or Western) culture has put the real “dreaming” (as in daily art making, ritual and play, not competing or product selling) on the bottom of the priority list and out of schools, even though science and history have shown that when you take that kind of dreaming away from people (or cultures), they die.

So, crossing the lines of segregation, of the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots; moving art practice out into the open and away from of exclusivity, back into the streets, schools, and homes; making art motivated by compassion and empathy and not by the drive for success or money-making; creating space for daily dreaming-for-dreaming’s-sake on any level of social existence; these are my “dreams” for dealing with the social issue of cultural segregation (exclusivity and art capitalism). And I am calling on artists in all fields (and especially in dance, as it is humanity’s first and oldest art form and the art form available for Every Body at any time, in which the person IS the art) to wake up and take this matter into their own hands. It is the responsibility of art and artists to keep the dreaming alive for all people and to find ways to manifest it even if it goes against the grain of the market or industry. Ezra Pound defined the role of the artist as being the antenna of the culture into the future. I want to add that as the future “receivers” of the message sent by that antenna I see art-exposed, art-activated, art-engaged people in all sectors and all ages of society.

I went to my bank the other day to see if I could get a line of credit, sorely needed to deal with my debts and their high interests. I also wanted to wire some money to my daughter and her son, who is a dancer at age seven, performing with a contemporary dance company in France. While the banker was working on these projects she asked me about my daughter and her son and shared with me that she had wanted to be an artist all her life, but was talked out of the pursuit of that dream. While she appreciated having her job, she was not very happy doing it, and had recently taken up painting on her own account and had begun sharing her work on Instagram. This was what made her happy, and I could feel that happiness emanating from her, it was contagious and inspiring.

Riding the trolley to West Philadelphia, two young African American boys were practicing the art of rapping on their way home from school, and having a lot of fun. I felt lucky to have the gift of this experience of daily dreaming/art practice. I would not have had it driving my own car.