Did A Car Hit It--Or Maybe A Train?

On a family outing several years ago, I drove past an office park where a bright red tubular sculpture leaned in front of a building. "What's that?" asked my then 4-year-old daughter, intrigued enough to remove her thumb from her mouth.

"A sculpture," I answered. "An artist imagined it, shaped it out of steel and painted it."

"Did a car hit it?" my daughter asked. "No," I replied.

"Then maybe a train? "

At that moment I thought of the Hans Christian Andersen tale "The Emperor's New Clothes," the story of a monarch tricked into buying exquisite, invisible garments that he wears in a parade, until a boy declares him stark naked.

Since that car ride, I've found myself wondering why adults don't view art work with the honest, critical eyes of a child. Could it be that the grown-ups on review boards who approve public projects don't want to appear unsophisticated? So they commission and give accolades to art works and buildings that any child (or anyone listening to his inner child) would readily say look ugly.

Just because an artist or architect is famous doesn't mean we should applaud everything he or she creates. I see this happening everywhere, from superstar architect Frank Gehry's new $46 million medical-research center in Cincinnati (a building that I think could win the "Ugliest Building in the United States" award) to the public library in the Connecticut town where I live.

With much fanfare, our library board hired an esteemed New York architectural firm to design the riverfront building. The result? A dreary, flat-roofed, red-brick building with no windows overlooking the water.

While the library earned respect for its wealth of resources, it also earned itself a nickname. I first heard it when I informed my editor that I was on my way there to do some research. "Oh, you mean you're going to 'the Russian Fish Factory'?" she said.

Today, only 15 years after it was built, our library has a totally new look. The board hired a lesser-known architectural firm to enlarge the structure. While the firm was at it, it added a pitched roof and huge bay windows to take advantage of the magnificent river view. No one calls it the Fish Factory anymore.

Just before he left office, our mayor accepted on the town's behalf a rusty sculpture he was told was made by a famous artist. After seeing this "generous gift," many townspeople agreed that the couple who donated the sculpture got the better deal--a sizable tax write-off and the removal of this metal monstrosity from their lawn.

Within weeks of being placed amid picnic tables in a downtown park, this sculpture was spray-painted with the words ugly, very ugly by an outraged passerby. The culprit was no teenage graffiti artist. He was a local house painter who confessed that he just flipped when he saw it. The sculpture was moved to a safer spot in front of our renovated library, in direct view of police headquarters.

Now I don't condone defacing art, nor do I believe that art should be pretty and safe. Art should lift you, provoke you and transport you, but it should also be honest. The intentions of artists whose work aspires to shock, like the controversial "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, are as transparent as those garments worn by the emperor. Just as transparent are the intentions of architects who design attention-grabbing buildings with no consideration for the needs of their inhabitants.

I recall my first visits to SoHo galleries and performance-art shows. Talk about artistic insecurity. I'd speed-read the arcane gallery notes, desperate for guidance: tell me what I'm looking at, please, before someone sees I'm clueless.

I quickly learned art-speak lingo, as I had learned to decipher "medicalese" as a health-and-science TV-news producer. Dressing safely in black, I mingled at openings, nodding my head and regurgitating buzzwords like "artistic sensibility," "spacial," "organic."

It's this privy language of the art world that keeps people unfamiliar with the jargon from challenging its concepts. Added to this is the reality that most people don't want to be taken for rubes. It's much safer to praise a work by a famous architect or artist than to risk ridicule by criticizing it.

That's why, all around us, ugly buildings continue to be erected without question and paintings of no artistic merit draw crowds. Perhaps if we offered a few seats on review boards to kindergartners, we grown-ups might begin to judge art more critically. We'd hear questions like, "Did a car hit it?" before a sculpture is plunked on the town green. Before millions are spent transforming blueprints into buildings. Before the emperor struts out naked into the parade.

Did A Car Hit It--Or Maybe A Train? | News