Public Art

There are towers in towns all over Italy. The only one we know about is the one that is leaning.

They know how to fix the tower to make it stand up straight, but they do not want to. 

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It is difficult to imagine a committee planning to make a monument so popular that tourists would come to take joke photos of it. It is difficult to imagine them even being willing to the pitch about it after what happened with the Eiffel Tower.

From a petition against the coming construction of the Eiffel Tower:
“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection . . . of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.”

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Safe ideas that avoid controversy generally are the goal of any committee. How often does really good art start out as uncontroversial?

It’s a blow that one has to take. Social scientists say that there never has been a mass movement that did not have an enemy. One of the best things that can happen to a piece of public art is to have a mass loyal enough to fight for it. Public art can mobilize people on both sides in a way that gives it a larger presence in the consciousness of the community than it otherwise would have.

In the middle of Paris’s harmonious, low-rise, limestone facades the Eiffel Tower was a sky scraping tangle of exposed plumbing that was hated by enough people to mobilize people on the other side. Fighting for something creates loyalty and affection. The more people who hated it, the more other people rose to defend it, and love it. 

I’m not pitching having a peace pole lean or be a mass of exposed plumbing, although it would be interesting to think about. But I am pitching working out something that could cause people to talk about it, hear about it, remember it, and perhaps be motivated to go there to see it – something that could give it a place in the local culture that would make it more than a decoration.

Like Flying Pigs in Cincinnati

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A sculptor creating a gate for a new park in Cincinnati put flying pigs on top of the gate as a nod to a time in history when the city was known nationally as Porkopolis because of all the swine herding and meat packing there, a period of time long forgotten by the citizens of Cincinnati many of whom did not like being reminded of it.

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The sculptor put them up high.  Most people walking through that gate don’t notice them. That would have been their whole story, a mostly unnoticed decoration, if not for the controversy.

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The mayor said they were demeaning and wanted them removed. Newspapers ran columns about it. A special city council meeting was called to get them removed. The public showed up on both sides of the issue, but the people who liked them turned into a bigger force. 

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Flying pigs now are a beloved icon. The annual marathoin in Cincinnati is called the Flying Pig Marathon. Restaurants and shops are named after them. Cookbooks are named after them. Tee shirts are emblazoned with them. The photo below shows how they turn up everywhere.  ​

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But try to get anyone to consider doing that on purpose when creating public art.

If a peace pole is going to gain a space in the consciousness of a community, something about it must cause that. Size, substance, design and landscaping are effective, but if everything is on center and as expected, it is unlikely to do it as well as when something is not.

Peace poles should be meeting places that are more interesting and more fun than they usually are. Creating something that might appear to be a mistake, or might just be very unusual, possibly in a place where you’d want to sit and think, possibly about peace, can go a long way toward enabling a peace pole to do its job. 

How much more attention would people pay to a peace pole if it were leaning? 

The only people I ever persuaded

Buried Inscription

A Boy Scout had made an Eagle Scout project of ordering a limestone peace pole to plant next to his church. It was a long process with lots of hoops for me to jump through, but at the end I pitched to him this idea. There was to be an inscription on it saying that it was an Eagle Scout project in a certain year with a certain scout troop. I said that the inscription would get only passing attention if we put it on center where everyone expects it, but that if we buried half of it, or at least made it look as though we did, people would notice it. 

If we placed it at ground level in a way that made it appear as though it continued underground, even though all the information actually was above ground, it would raise questions. Was it a mistake? Did it sink? What does it say below ground? Why didn’t they fix it? 

One can imagine, 20 years from now, someone writing to the local paper asking “What’s the deal with that inscription being half buried?” If the journalist did some homework, the response would be that the artist buried half of it so that the reader would ask that question in order to help to keep the peace pole in the community’s consciousness when the journalist wrote about it.

Would a committee ever agree to something like that? Kudos to that scout and his parents for being the only people in the country (so far) to be so open. It’s the kind of thing that never is done but should be normal with peace poles. So far only one lone scout agreed to go there. 

You can imagine a few upturned noses at the dedication ceremony. You also can imagine someday his showing it to his grandchildren and having them point to that inscription. As long as they live they’ll never forget standing there with him as he explained it. 

If you’re ever in St. Charles, Missouri with a camera, I’d be grateful for a photo of his half buried inscription to post here.