In 1912, Marcel Duchamp took a urinal, signed it R. Mutt and put it in an art gallery. Some at the time called it art — most everybody else thought it was — a urinal. As we speak, “Mutt decisions” are being made all over the world.
In the city of Victoria, B.C., Canada, for example, they’re building a new hockey arena. The city fathers decided to include a piece of art along with the architecture. A call to artists and a selection committee eventually resulted in a $120,000.00 proposal by an art professor by the name of Mowry Baden. To the majority of Victoria’s fine citizenry the piece is, to say the least, a disappointment. Letters to the editor of Victoria papers include the words disaster, abortion, tragedy, tasteless and meaningless. Of particular concern is that the arena is supposed to be a memorial to the many servicemen and women who gave their lives in the various wars. The chosen piece seems to have nothing to do with this sentiment.
Two key philosophies are in conflict here. There are those who think that public art should exemplify known values. These folks generally, but not always, want something they can understand. They distrust what they consider to be ivory-towered or over-educated elitists, particularly those that hold the power to inflict esoteric taste.
Then there are those who understand that “expert” is a viable option. We go to a dentist, for example, rather than doing our own root-canals. When it comes to choosing public art it’s only natural to bring in arts administrators, professors, even other artists. Let’s face it — the masses are asses.
But there’s something else going on. The elitist jury system for public art is simple, face-saving, and expedient. While they may take flak, it gets politicians off the hook. Holding a democratic plebiscite would cost more than the art itself. Victoria’s Memorial Arena will not get a statue of a soldier, a hockey player, a cougar, or a moose. Like it or not, Victoria’s getting a Mowry Baden.
Collecting art privately is a moose of a different colour. No experts need apply. Wow! Think about it.
PS: “I force myself to contradict myself, so as to avoid conforming to my own taste.” (Marcel Duchamp) “There are two kinds of taste, the taste for emotions of surprise and the taste for emotions of recognition.” (William James)
Esoterica: Mowry Baden sent an email to a hundred of his friends and told them he was in danger of losing this one. Some others came out in support. More than two hundred are now known to be in favor of his submission. The population of Victoria is 400,000. Most of them are saying “whatever.” It’s a Mutt’s game.
Deep spiritual poverty
by Brian Knowles, CA, USA
At some point, I think everyone’s art comes to reflect their values — or the lack of them. Marcel Proust wrote, “Through art we can know another’s view of the universe.” H.R. Rookmaaker says, “…modern art did not just happen. It came as a result of a deep reversal of spiritual values in the Age of Reason, a movement that in the course of a little more than two centuries changed the world” (Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, p. 11). Much of what is billed as “art” today is a reflection of the deep spiritual poverty that has overtaken the lives of many artists. Out of the darkness comes more darkness. Emptiness yields up emptiness.
Does it hurt anyone?
Variety and tastelessness are a small price to pay in order to nullify some of the ignorances that our ancestors endured. Admittedly, strong, exclusivist patronage based on belief systems was the source of some great art (for example, Mormon Art), but most of us have moved on. There is only one question worth asking: “Does it hurt anyone?” Freedom is ringing and we ought to celebrate it.
Kids love it
by Paul Kane
It is hard to evaluate the project from the clickback picture. It looks undistinguished, but that’s without much to go on. Oftentimes you have to be around a piece of public art for a while to see if it grows on you. There is a piece in my hometown outside the new City Hall that I scoffed at when I first saw the designs. I’ve come to like it; it’s better than anything I would have designed. Kids love it — that says a lot.
by oliver, TX, USA
I suppose that there is at least one other dynamic here. Who put up the money for the work? In the case of the University of Arizona several years ago, the walking toothpicks that adorn the main entry were also considered a travesty. One of the outcries that was quickly silenced was educational resources were being traded for that? Turns out a donor had made a restricted bequest — it had to be used for a large piece of art on the main lawn. The work still had many critics, but at least this criticism went away.
I guess if the masses who are asses — pay for the work from their taxes, maybe it should have wider appeal. I’ll note though, as I recall, there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War Memorial, but I think it has become well regarded over time.
(RG note) The Baden piece will be financed by property taxes.
by Pam Wong
It is perhaps significant alone that the city fathers decided to include an art piece at all. In smaller communities the marriage of the “arts” and “sports” worlds are in the infancy stage, community programs readily fund sports of all kinds for people of all ages, the funding for the arts budget is usually considerably less. Almost all towns host a hockey arena several baseball diamonds and soccer fields. Arts venues rarely compare. The decision is still significant in itself.
Way to go Mutt!
by Liz Carter
Whatever Mutt’s game is, I have to approve. It has people talking about art and thinking about art. Now that’s progress! It’s a tough job to get a reaction in today’s high maintenance society. Mutt got reactions, boy did he get reactions. Way to go Mutt!
by Irma Reinhold, DE, USA
Have the elitists once again selected the work of an exhibitionist rather than that of an inspiring and sensitive artist? And why? Perhaps it is to further show the public that they are superior and secure in their position. Of course societies rejection of their choice only feeds their inflated egos and one must marvel at such arrogance. Can anyone wonder why there is such indifference to artists and the contribution that they make to our society? When told that this is art, who cares?
Wrong place anyway
by Arla J Swift, BC, Canada
Aesthetically I can’t say I get it, it seems in need of a didactic panel. My first reaction is what do you expect for $120,000? That’s really not much if a budget for something that is presumably so important. In addition, I’m not certain about the appropriateness of constructing an arena as a memorial to the war dead. Did they die so that we could go on living vicariously, sitting on our duffs while watching others perform feats of athletic prowess or alternatively, hockey tourneys? I should think libraries and community halls, places where it is possible to study democracy and actively engage in it, would be more suitable.
by Gertjan Zwiggelar, BC, Canada
Mowry Baden is doing legitimate artists a real disservice by making such a professorial piece of crap. Shame on him and shame on Victoria. One of Geert Maas’s bronzes would have served Victoria much better. This commission reeks of patronage and a public committee with no sense or aesthetic sensibilities, like so many. Actually, I am so cynical that I believe anything touched by governments, of any kind, usually result in expensive boondoggles which we, the beleaguered public have to pay for. There are a number of such pieces in Kelowna, which have some of the ugliest public art in the world. One in particular comes to mind, a giant poop that sits in a prominent place in front of the Bank of Montreal in downtown Kelowna. This particular monstrosity cost one hundred grand and is sculpted by a man, who thinks he is a sculptor but, indeed, has produced some of the most amateurish garbage posing as art. The sad thing is, people buy it because they know no better and are afraid to voice their true feelings because of the awe factor that has become an attachment of some persons who obtain favorable press from reporters who know no better.
I think it would work
by Andrea Pratt
I was in Victoria last week and saw this sculpture and some of the competition illustrated in the newspaper, and could see no hugely discernible qualitative difference in the various options. Why the big hue and cry? I think the Baden is interesting and would work, and just the fact that it’s being criticized by the more-conservative-than-average Victoria establishment lends it some credibility in my opinion, but presence is one of those things that are impossible to tell from a snapshot. Are the critics looking at the real issue or just the concept?
Laughter is better
by Alar Jurma
In this case, it’s “the Masses: 3, Mowry Baden: 0 ” His piece is simply “uninspiring.” Mindy and not beautiful. I have to admit that I had to squint my eyes to see his work, but I think I would feel the same if I saw it in real life. I once read a book of conversations between an enlightened spiritual master and some Western academics who came to India in the late seventies to test his knowledge. A question was posed : “Why is there so much ignorance in the world?” The Master replied: “Ignorance is the very nature of this world.” That stuck in my brain for all these years and I think it applies to so many things that sometimes pain us and sometimes amuse us. The choice is ours. Personally, when I remember it, laughter is better.
by Janet Warrick
I have always been an avid reader. But when I was a teenager the books I loved to read were mainstream romances. Then, when I was fifteen, a desire to be a writer led me to the study of fiction writing. As I began to learn what good writing was, a funny thing happened. My taste in literature changed. I was no longer interested in pulp fiction, could no longer even get past the first page without getting bored senseless. Gone was the “mindless ease” with which I could read such books, but what rewards I have reaped from reading books of true literary value! Rewards I will reap and treasure for the rest of my life.
It occurs to me that the mutt decisions being made in art are caused by the fact that the “masses who are asses” have never progressed beyond “pulp fiction” (or pulp art) in their tastes. This might reflect the fact that so much of the art education has been cut from the school programs over the years. But then again, maybe not. Chances are, inferior teachers would only be adding to the confusion of what good art is. People need to take matters into their own hands and educate themselves about art, and the past is a good place to start. If they would do this, they would never look at art the same way again, and their lives would forever be enriched.
Most people’s minds not open
by Judy Aldridge, Victoria, BC, Canada
I have read the papers regarding this issue. I graduated from art college in 2002. I must say that before attending art college I would have been one of the ones thinking; “What a bunch of crap! And we (the public) are supposed to pay for it?” Now, I see an artist who submitted his work against other artists’ work and was chosen. He has done nothing wrong. My mind has been opened to what art is. But I don’t think many people are willing to put in three years of art college to find that out. I also submit work for acceptance at shows. And I’m glad the general public doesn’t have the right to take down every piece of art they find unacceptable.
by Robert Amos, Victoria, BC, Canada
Mowry Baden is certainly well positioned to be the winner. At the end of a long career as a professor of Fine Art at the University of Victoria, his list of exhibitions and government grants is extensive. He’s made a career of public art installations, most notably under a bridge overpass in Seattle, Washington. Baden warms us up to his odd conjunction of shapes with a folksy “story line” about memory and hockey games.
by Alfred Muma
Apart from the fact that the image on your web site of Mowry’s proposal for a memorial is hard to see, I can’t see what all this “mutt” fuss is about. It’s certainly not in the category of signing a toilet and calling it art. It just goes to show how conservative Victoria is when it comes to the visual arts. I can definitely see a war memorial in that maquette. It is the balance that is rather interesting and makes it appropriate. The large overhanging forces on top of the shape of a person conveys dread, overwhelming odds… etc. It’s great for a war memorial as it doesn’t glorify war but suggests the opposite, causing one to pause and think about the realities of war, the death and needless destruction of lives, property and natural wonders of our world. I think it will be a refreshing addition to Victoria’s public art.
by J. Murphy
“The masses are asses”? The masses are the people who support the arts, buy it for their homes, pay for public art with their tax dollars. Without the masses your painterly comments would be falling on the ears of those who would be reduced to doing chalk drawings on sidewalks since there would be no one around to support them. I am surprised that someone of your stature would make such an unbecoming, biased, self-serving, narrow-minded, elitist, insulting, comment!
by L. Fletcher
Reading your take on this item a couple of times still didn’t give me a clear idea of your own opinion on his piece, very diplomatic of you, but I just have to let the Cretan in me shine one more time. I’m not an art professor, but I do have some structured art training, and that was with an art professor, more importantly though, a brilliant inventor, who luckily for me found himself teaching in a remote community in northern Alberta, in his break-in period for entering the North American continents’ coveted and lucrative, tenured university market. I have to admit, that partially as a result of this teachers’ interaction with me, but mostly the personal experiences I’ve had over the years, I seem to have established very firm feelings about Mr. Baden’s type of art. I do accept that art is in the eye of the beholder, that one person’s art is another persons’ trash, and that even my own view of the world in my art may seem mysterious and unusual to some. I visit city art galleries and sometimes see similar presentations to Mr. Baden’s that bewilder me. I well know that my opinion is shallow, formally uneducated, and completely personal, but here it is. I see Mr. Baden’s piece as a prime example of one of the two worlds of art in our society. His art is purely reflective of left brain logic, it needs and likely delivers along with it, pages and pages of bewildering, educated, mumblespeak rationalization… justification and explanation… words that flow with such higher planed verbosity that the viewer is meant to be humbled and mystified by the inexplicable but obviously wondrous object in front of him. Just because a person has financed themselves through 5 or six years of university, managed to get themselves embedded in a tenured position at a university as a professor, doesn’t in any way mean that they are the cream of the artist crop. Now, I don’t mean to demean the tenured art professorial establishment as a whole, but heaven forbid that the rest of us might have the slightest idea of ‘good art.’ This is another case of the ‘Emperor’s new clothes.’ On the other hand I personally would never like to see another statue to Wayne Gretzky or another beaver, eagle, and so on. But for that kind of money I’m sure there are bonafide artists in the Victoria area who would have presented amazing and wonderful presentations to this committee, that even the general public would have recognized and enjoyed, given the chance. This type of situation really only alienates even more of general buying public to ‘art.’ Ironic, isn’t it, that the artistic monument we erect in this public place, will not speak to the common man at all, except to bring anger, bewilderment and contempt onto the heads of all artists, as the public sees their hard earned money being spent once again, on something of a sham.
Avant garde purposefully cynical
by Judy Lalingo
Academia dismisses the traditions of drawing, painting and sculpture in favour of self-expression. Everyone is an artist… everything is art. Is it a fair system? Is it based on the fundamentals of “good art”, or is it favouritism? Yes, art is subjective at best… but if all traditional art forms are automatically overlooked in favour of installation and conceptual art for public spaces, what does that mean for the ongoing evolution of painting or sculpture? This in itself creates another division — traditionally executed art forms are collected privately, while the avant-garde art forms become the darlings of the Art World.
How do we bridge these gaps, or should we even try? Where is the Art World leading us to? Is postmodernism the only direction to go in? Isn’t it exalting the power of the idea, the concept, over other valid experiences of reality? If art in public spaces does not effectively communicate to the public, is it failing to achieve its purpose? Should the public just get over it, and take the responsibility to educate themselves in art and art history? (Thankfully, I have noted that many public art museums are devoting more energy to educating the public.)
But I dunno… I happen to like the Mowry Baden piece — it has a universal interpretation. I think artists should listen to that inner voice & produce what they are compelled to produce… but at the same time, how self-absorbed is this? Are you speaking a language of one? Or does your art have meaning & compassion for universal man? Should it? Or is it for the elitist ivory tower? Why should there be such divisiveness? Why isn’t art more meaningful to Joe Q. Public? My suspicions are that the present system has segregated art FROM the masses. No one likes to feel that they are stupid and truth be told, some (or much, depending on your point of view) of the avant garde art is purposefully cynical, intentionally obtuse and downright mean. It’s passive-aggressive in nature — and no wonder — after all, it does not want to be product, it is process… the art is for the elite, and the critics and curators have become the artists. How can your integrity survive in these conditions?
Defames the memory
by Ian de W. Semple
One of the unfortunate aspects of death is that while it may or may not be artistic in its execution, it is universally recognizable in its (earthly) finality. Given that you say that the arena “is supposed to be a memorial to the many servicemen and women who gave their lives in the various wars,” it seems to me that this memorial sculpture deserves a form that invites universal recognition. In this case we must ask the question: who is this particular art for? The answer it seems to me is that it is primarily for the dead that it might inspire the living. This is a case where that art should not be overwhelmed by controversy, for in doing so, it defames the memory of those who deserve our veneration.
by Jerry Snyder, KS, USA
Your letter on public art uses several key words and phrases: “masses are asses,” “elitists,” “esoteric taste,” and “whatever.” Taken together they spell irrelevance. The reason the general public has a “whatever” opinion is that the art elitists, together with their esoteric tastes, have excluded the ass masses to the point that public art is now irrelevant. It’s a big joke, not only in Canada, but in the U.S. as well. Today, public placement of an artwork is not a declaration of importance or relevance; it is only the indication of a great sales job. Public acceptance and praise, meaning the artwork is important to the average guy “who doesn’t understand art” are the measures of relevance. In the United States, the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, and the Marine Corps Iwo Jima memorial; in Europe, Michelangelo’s Pieta and David, and Vuchetich’s The Motherland, to name only a few, are public art works that transcend small elitist opinions and are universally relevant. One thousand years from now they are the works that people will remember, that people will visit, because they have the immortal and understandable connection with people of all classes, all colors, all nationalities. They are relevant. One thousand years from now, Mowery Baden and his fellow scam artists will be a curious, irrelevant footnote on the urinal of art history.
Controversy not a good reason
by Laura Carberry
I live in Victoria, BC, and although I am an artist, I still consider myself part of the “masses” and I am sorry but think your comments about the “Masses being asses” is not in keeping with the inspiring and helpful nature of your weekly missives and your web site. I am not sure what should be at the new arena but I do not like the piece that was chosen and think too much art today is created, not for its beauty and ability to communicate but for the degree of controversy it can cause — not a good reason in my opinion.
Slot-type voting machine
by Joanne Smith
If Mr. Baden’s goal was to symbolize “conflict” through a jarring juxtaposition of forms, he appears to have succeeded. Response is evidence.
The City might collect significant revenue to support pubic art if they provided the public an opportunity to vote; a Loonie to punch a button “I’m provoked” (or) “I don’t get it.” There’s always the possibility that one’s first impression, whether positive or negative, might be reversed in future such that one Loonie may be followed by another in order to reverse one’s previous vote. I’d pay to have my anonymous say. Perhaps the City could recover the $120K — which would be a benefit to all.
(RG note) A “Loonie” is a Canadian dollar coin.
John Link link
by Ron Gang, Israel
John Link is an artist and teacher who has written some very much “right on” articles about what he thinks art should be, as well as thoughts about the power holders in the “art world.” I agree wholeheartedly with his articles, and it would seem that Marcel Duchamp and his followers have really “mutt”ed art.
Maybe it’s too difficult to do make good art and me measured against the fine tradition and artists that have gone on before, so people are opting out for “ready-made” solutions in this age of instant products.
(RG note) John Link’s articles can be found at www.johnlink.org
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.
That includes Barbara Loyd who wrote, “I saw the Mowry Baden proposal and can only surmise that he had a lot of friends on the selection committee. In any case, it can remain an example of a “bad un.” Bet it will be covered with graffiti immediately after its installation — one can hope this improves it.”
And Mimi Notaro who wrote, “How about giving that $120,000 towards a scholarship for the children of the soldiers killed in Iraq? Maybe there are some interested in studying art.”
And also Richard Haynes who wrote, “I don’t think I’ve ever met an artist or a designer who has my good taste when it comes to choosing good art ;)”