Art is arguable. That’s a statement with which we can all agree.
San Antonio City Councilman Joe Krier added proof last week when he announced plans to request the council reconsider city funding of public art. He will also request that any future funds used for public art only go to artists hailing from San Antonio or Texas. All this because he doesn’t like a few sculptures.
What’s his beef with them?
“I just don’t get it,” Krier explained to his council colleagues, as reported by The Rivard Report.
Well, there are likely a lot of things he doesn’t “get.” Many of us experience his bewilderment when confronting certain pieces of art. One of the most common questions posed of art is, “What does it mean?” As a teenager, I asked a writer to explain the point of his story to me. I thought he was going to punch me.
We shouldn’t just reject art we don’t “get.”
“[A]rt that is provocative has the chance of becoming landmarks and touchstones to their communities,” he said.
“When I was growing up in Chicago, Picasso’s fox-like sculpture Cassandra was installed. It was denounced, derided and scorned. Since it is a challenging image, many people thought it was for the elite rather than for the public. But fast forward a few decades: it is loved and admired. Out-of-towners are taken by to see it. In the summer, there are concerts and farmers’ markets around its base. It is celebrated.”
Lipski created 25 seven-foot-long fiberglass replicas of native long-eared sunfish for the residents of San Antonio. Lipski’s fish, which are lit from within at night, dangle over the Riverwalk from the I-35 underpass. While Krier might question the point of having art hanging beneath a bridge, I’m looking forward to going to view the work.
When asked to explain the work for the benefit of Krier and others, Lipski responded,
“My thoughts on F.I.S.H. started with the dark, forbidding space under I-35. The planners were afraid that people would walk that far and turn around. I wanted to create something unexpected, light-hearted and seductive. Floating this school of fish was an idea that came to me in a flash. I scuba dive, and the site reminded me of being underwater near a pier, the fish hanging around, maybe nibbling at the seaweed that grows there.”
He also involved the community in his creation.
“I had envisioned goldfish. Input from the public, which I always find interesting, suggested a local fish. The long-eared sunfish I ended up with live in the river — in fact, in rivers and streams all around the area. When kids learn to fish with a pole and a worm, it’s an odds-on bet that that’ll be their first catch. So, this change localized the artwork, personalized it. Helped to make it endearing.”
“I’ve seen crowds of people there in the evening. They watch as the bats fly out from their hidey-holes, then the fish light up, everyone applauds and heads to the cantina. This is what public art can do.”
There are fundamental problems with Krier’s proposed changes to city art funding. First, the majority (78 percent since 2007) of public art money already goes to local artists. That may explain why no local artist responded to my requests for responses to Krier’s plans.
More important, though, is that we’ll never “get” art by limiting it. Understanding is not achieved by reviewing appropriations and limiting the states and nations in which artists seeking funding may reside. While it’s important we support local artists, it’s equally important we don’t negate the culture of our city by making it unwelcoming. We are a multicultural city filled with many people who resided elsewhere at some point. Our art should reflect that.
In fact, maybe the artworks Krier questions have already achieved their goals. The best public art, Lipski said, should “inspire and intrigue, motivate and provoke. And delight.”
Councilman Krier, let’s go have a look at those F.I.S.H. I suspect we’ll be delighted (or provoked or motivated) and agree that more public art is what truly needs consideration.