Washington is a tough city for art. We are stewards of some of the finest art ever produced. And we are also a smallish city living in the shadow of the country’s cultural capital, New York. How does a newspaper review events at the National Gallery, and then turn around and look at the local gallery scene? Should the same standards apply?
I spent two weekends bicycling the city to look at the results of Art on Call, a public art project created by Cultural Tourism DC and funded (in part) by the city’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Local artists and neighborhood activists have decorated 122 (and counting) old police and fire call boxes, cast-iron urban furniture dating back to the 1860s. The goal was a mix of art and history.
Like all art, public art has a very high failure rate. Professional artists, if they are any good, hide or destroy the misfiring and imperfect realization of the creative impulse. But public art is founded on the arguable assumption that art is fundamentally a good thing (and good for you) and that artists should be empowered relatively equally, without too much concern for what is good and bad art. And so projects like Art on Call tend to put the whole iceberg of art on display, not just the tip of excellence.
Which leads to a strange dissonance in the downtown neighborhood known as the Golden Triangle. Mary Grigonis has contributed some moody paintings that capture city life (a street scene outside a Metro stop, a restaurant interior). They aren’t bad paintings — in fact, they are better than much of what Art on Call puts on display — but because they depict city life in the midst of real city life, they invite invidious comparison. And the art seems less lively, less engaging, than the world around it. In this case, the actual form of the call box works to the disadvantage of the artist. These little iron sculptures are reminders of an age of design when things were meant to be beautiful and long-lasting, which makes a strange contrast with art that feels more ephemeral and passing.
At its best, the results are imaginative and surprising, little bursts of oddity in a city that keeps its public image very button-down. But it’s also uneven, and it raises questions about public art. What models produce the best work? Should some kind of uniform standard apply? Which I tried to address in a piece published on Sunday. Folks in Tenleytown are not pleased.
Although ultimate victory against the Evil Doers is as certain today as it was when we first joined battle against this merciless and implacable foe, it is my unfortunate duty to inform you that there have been certain small and temporary setbacks in the War against Deadlines. We are not discouraged and we have already redoubled our efforts against the insolent enemy. We will pursue Overdue Assignments to the caves where they live. We will confront Due Dates on the Plains of Procrastination, and we will defeat them there. We will not weary or rest even unto the last hour of the last day of The Washington Post Sunday section production schedule. But today we must ask for patience and sacrifice on the Home Front.
And so we offer up an Opera News cover story, recently published, on the subject of style. Herein you can find my argument that the opera house is a place of refuge for the historically endangered idea of style, the need to make distinctions, to notice detail, to honor the received wisdom of the past while we imprint our own stamp on art. I even use the word “post-modernism,” and not in a nice way.
Filed under Culture, Opera
The Post gave me considerable space in Sunday’s paper to look at a new report issued by the American Institute of Architects. The document is a nuts-and-bolts thing, incremental in its recommendations and it hardly glances at the real problem–crippling security dictates–that may make it impossible to build inspiring embassy architecture again. But it proves that there’s momentum to acknowledge the ugly embassies we’ve built and their impact on our public diplomacy agenda. Many architects believe that a workable compromise between security and aesthetics can be achieved through innovative and inspired design. I hope so. The AIA recommends that the office responsible for designing embassy facilities borrow from the GSA, and adopt a “design excellence” program. Perhaps that will help, though design excellence is a great way to ensure you get B-plus structures. It rarely if ever produces A-plus buildings.
But I think without a serious conversation about security, about the degree of risk we must accept, and about the nature of a diplomatic work–perhaps it is fundamentally dangerous and we must simply accept that–we will never build great embassies again. And if we can’t build great ones, then we should at least stop building bad ones. And reinvent diplomacy without embassies. A sad conclusion, and I hope we never get there.