Let’s Take the Public Out of Public Art

What do the earth's vibrations, mounds of melting gloop, and bronze warts have in common? They all pass for public art.

You might say the city of Berkeley has a brand identity. In the national press, its brand is shorthand for namby-pamby liberalism. Lazy reporters could write a story a week about its internationalist pretensions, bizarre impulses to regulate coffee, and “Kumbaya” ethos. Hell, what would San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders write about if Berkeley didn’t spoon-feed her inanities on a regular basis?

Undoubtedly stung by such titters, the city’s Civic Arts Commission has resolved to cement a new image in the mind of America, that of a sensible Berkeley, shorn of its ’60s locks and ready to get down to business. And they’ve done it by planting a four-story tuning fork, which vibrates at the frequency of the earth, right in the middle of downtown.

Observers may be forgiven for wondering “What’s up with this hippie shit?” Designed by Chinese sculptor Po Shu Wang, the tuning fork — or, as the Civic Arts Commission has dubbed it, the Earth Song — rises in all its cherry-red serenity out of the median at Shattuck Avenue and Center Street, humming away at a frequency too low for mammalian ears. “It will be activated continuously with energy provided by the phenomena in its immediate environment — movement of BART trains, automobile and pedestrian traffic, and natural forces — all the while converting vibrations into the fundamental pitch of the earth,” gushed a commission press release last month. Think of all the potential ramifications of this innovative new device. Mongolian throat-singers everywhere are surely trembling at the imminent mechanization of their craft. No longer will seismologists rely on dogs to predict earthquakes — now they’ve got the Earth Song of Berkeley. And since we can’t hear what the earth is humming, what could be its secret song? “Cat Scratch Fever,” perhaps?

Lest you think the commission has taken temporary leave of its senses, brace yourselves for its latest offering. Just one block north of the tuning fork, at the very gateway to the city’s vaunted arts district, commission officials plan to install a new sculpture, whose title alone, s-Hertogenbosch, is guaranteed to lure fascinated patrons to the theaters, parking garages, and 24-hour fitness centers that lie beyond. The sculpture, another breathless press release gushes, “will provide a compelling, organic contrast to the geometric forms of nearby structures.” If, by that, the commission’s staff means that it’s a fourteen-foot mound of ceramic gloop resembling a plastic toy that’s spent too much time in the microwave, you’ll get no argument here.

But these two absurdities have done us at least one favor. By blighting the downtown landscape with asinine figurines, they force everyone who confronts them to ask a long-overdue question: Why is public art always so ghastly?

Berkeley is hardly the only city to embarrass itself with such monuments to silliness. Take a walk around downtown Oakland, and you’ll find plenty of public sculpture so ridiculously abstract that you have to take it on faith that any of these offerings mean something. Take the sculpture at the heart of City Center, the 12th Street office and retail complex. Perched atop a squat fountain, four multihued fans, each consisting of roughly two dozen parallel rods, twist around one another in order to emphasize — what, exactly? The piece is titled There! in an apparent effort to bury Gertrude Stein’s oft-quoted but famously misunderstood remark once and for all. What’s that supposed to mean? That we are too an important city? I’m just asking, ’cause a bunch of wings or fans or whatever doesn’t say shit to me.

The centerpiece of Oakland’s idiotic forays into public art has to be Bruce Beasley’s sculpture at the San Pablo entrance to Frank Ogawa Plaza, the city’s epicenter of government. Its name is Vitality, and it’s a 31-foot-tall penis. Or maybe it’s a boomerang. Or maybe an antiaircraft gun, as City Councilman Henry Chang once remarked. If it is a penis, it’s a mighty crooked one, as if some Lothario’s misspent youth had finally caught up with him. Bronze cubes pockmark the shaft as it stabs upward, leading passers-by to conclude that this particular organ has a bad case of venereal warts. Now, that’s vitality!

Vitality says all you need to know about why public art inevitably degenerates into bland, abstract goo that never says anything concrete. Vitality wasn’t the first candidate to greet visitors to the Oakland civic center. Back in 1998, the city had settled on a glass and steel sculpture by New York-based artist R.M. Fischer, but then the city’s arts community started whining that the “elitist” selection process chose a nationally renowned artist instead of a struggling local one. So the city listened to the artists and started the process all over again — which was its big mistake. After three years of squabbling, the Cultural Affairs Commission settled on the diseased sexual organ that currently rests in the plaza. The project actually required the approval of the city council, a surefire guarantee of mediocrity.

Any arts commission whose primary mission is not to make anyone angry simply isn’t doing its job. No public sculpture can possibly represent all of Oakland’s 400,000 residents, and art can’t be good if it’s too abstract and vague to offend anyone. But public art has been hamstrung by an absurd imperative to be all things to all people, and the result is nothing to nobody. Because Oakland is so focused on finding pieces with universal appeal, its art has been bled of the specificity that great art needs. Dan Fontes, a local muralist who has lived in Oakland all his life, pegs it right when he asks where’s the statue of Huey Newton, or Isadora Duncan, or Bruce Lee. For that matter, where’s the statue of Henry Kaiser? These may all be too concrete for Oakland, which is too busy erecting idiotic tributes to the dynamism of womanhood and other such concepts. Seventy years ago, abstract art was forceful and transgressive. But today, in the world of contemporary public art, abstract art is cowardice.

Frankly, Jerry Brown had the right idea when he created the Craft and Cultural Arts Commission and tried to bring some, yes, vitality to the city’s arts scene. In selecting one person to run all things artistic in the city, and shielding him from public accountability, he was obeying a smart managerial dictum: Find qualified people, hire them, and get out of the way. Unfortunately, Brown picked his famously mercurial confidant Jacques Barzaghi, who quickly demonstrated he was more interested in drooling on the necks of secretaries than doing his job. But the idea is still sound. Art simply cannot be conceived or approved by committee, as were the horrific pieces currently descending upon Berkeley’s downtown. It’s a dictator’s game. Until we agree to take the public out of public art, to rest our creative destiny on the shoulders of one interesting, dangerous egotist, all we’ll get is the artistic equivalent of Mueslix in the morning.

Oddly enough, there’s one place in the landscape of public art where a single, domineering personality can demand great work by force of will. And that’s the field of corporate-commissioned art. Businessmen have no compunction to represent all of us, just themselves and their company. But here too, art and architecture have entered a death spiral into bland nothingness.

Take the century-long history of ChevronTexaco, whose worldwide headquarters have plodded ineluctably from the sublime to the mediocre. In 1922, officials with what was then known as Standard Oil of California built themselves a magnificent building at 225 Bush Street in San Francisco. Designed by architect George Kelham (who later oversaw a massive wave of development on the UC Berkeley campus, including the construction of Sproul Hall and Harmon Gym), the building is an art deco treasure and was the signature building on the San Francisco skyline in its day. By the early ’70s, Chevron relocated to a glass and steel box on Market Street and sold the beautiful old building, which fell into disrepair. But since they were surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the Financial District, they still entertained thoughts about presenting a visual image to the public, and maintained a “World of Oil” museum set off from the lobby, in which visitors could view an old Model T Ford and other testimonies to the wonder of petroleum products.

In 1984, Chevron officials entered the endgame of their long process of physically disengaging from the public, breaking ground on a vast corporate campus in San Ramon, far from the presence of other businesses. Over time, more of the company’s offices relocated to the distant ‘burbs, and late last year, ChevronTexaco finally moved its executive suites to San Ramon, ending more than a century of working alongside other people.

Now, ChevronTexaco is physically insulated from the outside world, and nothing about the new campus — not its architecture, not the exhibits in the lobby — is designed for public consumption. Once upon a time, the Standard Oil Building was created to tell the public something about the company’s grandeur. Now, when you drive past the new campus, all you see is a security kiosk, a private access road, and some grassy berms obscuring the view of its squat offices. Everything about the company’s workplace seems to say, “Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.”

According to Roger Hay, a principal architect at Ratcliff Architects, two concerns drive big companies to retreat behind dull, formless campuses: security and money. When a small collection of robber barons stood astride the world of business, they could build vast monuments to themselves: Rockefeller Centers and Carnegie Halls. But in an age where publicly traded companies are generations removed from the egos that built them, daring forays into monumental architecture are likely to be punished at the next stockholder’s meeting.

“In the health care industry, for example, they have to continually demonstrate a judicious use of their money,” says Hays, who designed the undulating East Dublin/Pleasanton BART station, one of the East Bay’s most striking pieces of public architecture. “The confidence of how the money is managed is very important, and if they were to express themselves architecturally, which some may construe as an arrogant use of their money, it could have a negative impact.”

And in the Bay Area, where intellectual property is our bread and butter, fears of corporate espionage have risen so high that campuses aren’t designed to incubate creativity, but to guard ideas. The new workplaces aren’t campuses — they’re compounds. “You see berms because of the security needs to protect the kind of research or business that goes on at these companies,” Hay says. “In an urban environment, you have security guards in the lobbies. At the suburban campuses, security happens at the gates, where people drive in. In a suburban context, the security controls tend to be pushed further and further toward the street, and insulates the campus even further from its surroundings.”

This phenomenon is antithetical to the intellectual dynamism that gave birth to Silicon Valley. William Hewlett and David Packard thought up their dreams in a garage, not an antiseptic cocoon. And the tech economy is driven by the interchange of ideas, which can only happen if interesting people are forced to rub elbows with one another. But today’s corporate campuses are built to constrain ideas, not engender them.

The modern corporate campus doesn’t just denude American business of aesthetic dynamism; it stifles the capacity for creative thought in entire industries. As Oakland’s Vitality has unfortunately shown, public art is trapped by committees of cautious worriers, men and women who are too concerned with adverse public reaction to make art interesting. But you find the same attributes in corporate art as well. Where are the Medicis or Rockefellers of our era? Who will demand of our sculptors and architects more than tuning forks and manicured lawns?

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