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Michelangelo, Take A Hike

Some of the world's greatest public art would be rejected here

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The most famous statue in Western art history, carved by the most famous artist of the last 500 years, could never be approved as public art in Charlotte.

I'm talking about Michelangelo's statue of David, which was commissioned by the city of Florence, Italy, and placed in the Piazza della Signoria in 1504 as a symbol of that city's skill, taste and self-confidence. (A copy still stands in its outdoor location while the precious original is preserved in the Galleria dell'Accademia). The giant sculpture of the young, handsome, and naked biblical hero, with his greater-than-life-sized penis and testicles in full view, would certainly not meet standards of taste in Charlotte today. Influential people, including several overzealous city council members, would be outraged. Christian conservatives would hurl invective at the naked human form, arguing it corrupts "family values" (whatever they are). An editorial in The Charlotte Observer would plea for compromise, suggesting that such nudity is acceptable in a museum, but not on a public street where it can be seen by all.

All this is entirely predictable. And somewhat pathetic.

Public art means different things to different people. It's also a concept that's changed its meaning over several centuries. Part of these changes relate to public taste and expectations, while other developments have political roots, as governance has evolved from autocratic rulers in the past to elected democracies in the present.

Vocal local critics of public art, and art in general, have raised Cain about public money being spent for these purposes. From their narrow, doctrinaire perspective, art is a commodity like anything else, and must be allowed to succeed or fail in the marketplace, like any other "product." In this picture, the profitability of art is the only criterion for judgment. These blinkered commentators are the perfect example of someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Only Philistines hold the view that a piece of art is a "thing" — like, say, a new stereo system. They completely fail to see art's cultural dimension as a holder of symbolic significance for society, values that resist crude market pricing. How much, for example, is Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans' Memorial "worth"?

The public provenance of Michelangelo's masterwork illustrates the counter claim. Indeed, more than two thousand years of history argue against these self-appointed critics of Charlotte's art. From the earliest times, societies have used art for public purposes, particularly to decorate and embellish important buildings. Civilizations have long carved and cast their ideals and beliefs into stone and bronze memorials, or symbols of civic pride and prosperity.

In the last three decades, however, the role and function of public art has changed, arising in part from a desire by municipalities to use art in new ways — for social and economic development. The scope of public art has broadened to include paving designs, benches, lights, shelters and other street furniture, and the use of natural phenomena such as trees, bushes and landscape elements.

The "publicness" of public art is always debatable. Is art "public" because it resides in public space, irrespective of who places it there; or is it true public art only when it's paid for by public funds or created with or by a local community? Charlotte adopts the former stance; the four statues by Raymond Kaskey at Trade and Tryon Streets were paid for by private funds but placed in public space. The art for the new arena and light rail line will also be in public space, but financed by public money.

The art for the arena echoes the centuries-old practice of improving the aesthetics of a building by the addition of sculpture. Picture the Parthenon in Athens (5th century BC) or any European cathedral from the Middle Ages. For the light rail stations, the rationale is a more modern mix of economic development and community outreach. An attractive, well-designed series of public places — the station platforms and their environs — are likely to be better used, promote a better image, and require less maintenance than scruffy, minimalist spaces that reflect poorly on the city. Different art at each station can promote a unique sense of identity, a cornerstone of community improvement.

The act of placing art in public space raises a spectrum of issues regarding taste, appropriateness, freedom of expression and progress. No art selection panel in Charlotte, either public or private, would be likely to commission a 13-foot high statue of a naked man with large genitals. But where does this self-censorship lead? Are we condemned to commission bland, vacuous art whose main criterion is not to offend anybody?

Good art always has intellectual content. It has to mean something. If David was accepted by Renaissance Florence as a worthy symbol of their city at the peak of its power, what art best represents Charlotte?

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