The grassy triangular plot of land at the corner of Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park in downtown Providence – officially Parcel 12 of Capital Center – is unofficially called Bad Sculpture Park. A hotel is going to be built there, finally, and the bad sculpture is being taken away.
The sculptor, it turns out, is Donald Gerola, of Pawtucket, who moved here a decade ago from New York. Today’s Providence Journal has a piece by Mark Reynolds, “Sculptor dismayed by lack of acceptance,” that, perhaps without intending to do so, expresses many home truths about art and public taste.
He’s [also] in the process of retrieving four of his sculptures from public exhibits on Hope Street in Providence, at Pawtucket’s Slater Mill and at the Courthouse Center for the Arts in South Kingstown “I should never have brought them to Rhode Island,” he says. “I really regret it all,” adds Gerola, who once stretched 30,000 feet of colorful synthetic fabric cord across the Blackstone River to create an abstract weaving near the old Slater Mill.
Other transplants like Gerola and native Rhode Islanders, too, have followed big dreams and felt stymied by politics or lackluster economics or their own miscalculations. The nature of Gerola’s experience, which involves public art and ambitions of great scale, is one of the rarer tales of regret.
Between the lines is regret that the public often chuckles at art like this. I like to think I played a bit part by calling Parcel 12 “Bad Sculpture Park.”
But do not blame Gerola for this. He may have great talent as an artist within him, but he came up within an artistic milieu that encourages artists to believe they can make a living creating lesser art, work of often childish fatuity. Reynolds reports that Gerola works in a vein that resembles Christo, the artist who cloaks buildings in colorful tarps. This is not art, it is publicity.
Christo’s work was spoofed by Stephen Colbert on The Daily Show a few years ago with a hilarity that was probably far more profound, as a statement of art criticism or even of cultural criticism, than even Colbert or Jon Stewart realized. Here is “The Gates,” and its best passage:
Jon, “The Gates” is a triumph of contemporary installation art. Each gate redefining its section of the park not as a private place for public reflection but as a public place for private reflection. Juxtaposed with the barrenness of mid-winter, “The Gates” posits a chromatic orgy. This riot of color achieves a rare redefamiliar- ization with the nature of place/time, the “whatness” of our “whereness.” No longer framed … I’m sorry, I’ve run out of crap.
The skit’s “final act of resandwichment” might equal that. Check it out.
People who want to become artists in America and elsewhere are not encouraged to stretch their talents to create serious art that the public consciously or unconsciouly identifies and reveres as such. Institutions such as local and state art councils that funnel money through 1 percent for art and other programs foster a dumbed-down concept of art that boosts the number of people who believe they are artists. Christo exemplifies that trend, and while it may energize conventional art critics and their ilk, this reconceptualization of art suppresses the real value of art, and suppresses the money most artists can make. Only those artists, like Christo, who manage, via PR, to infatuate the artist-wannabes of the 1 percent, who buy junk for millions to make a social statement of their ability to throw away those millions, have the “right” to laugh all the way to the bank.
The Colbert segment’s ridicule drills down to reveal a sophisticated sensibility toward such art that the public strongly feels and that the art establishment fears. Gerola is a victim of this disengagement of the art establishment from genuine art. He joins a vast pool of creator-victims in sculpture, in painting and many other fields. But the greatest victims are members of the public who have every right to expect artists to stretch their talents rather than to participate (with the art establishment) in the atrophy of art as a whole.
The public’s recognition of the lack of seriousness (let alone beauty) of most public art these days is a valuable persistence of memory that relies on the widespread existence of beautiful figurative statuary and sculptural groups in fountains or plazas in public parks and public squares. That work puts the work of artists like Donald Gerola into proper perspective. Inevitably, that’s uncomfortable and unprofitable for him, but it’s good for the public and for the hope of an eventual revival of genuine civic art in America.
Truly talented sculptural works such as the Bajnotti Fountain in Providence’s Burnside Park are a lot harder for the art establishment to demolish of than the works of classical and traditional architecture that the architectural establishment eradicates with relative ease. So the cityscapes of traditional architecture tend to degenerate at an even faster pace than the parks and squares that feature old public art. The work of preservationists should be to slow down that slide, but professional preservationists are themselves in bed with the modernist establishment in art and architecture who are to blame.