Let's Take the Public Out of Public Art 

What do the earth's vibrations, mounds of melting gloop, and bronze warts have in common? They all pass for public art.

You might say the city of Berkeley has a brand identity. In the national press, its brand is shorthand for namby-pamby liberalism. Lazy reporters could write a story a week about its internationalist pretensions, bizarre impulses to regulate coffee, and "Kumbaya" ethos. Hell, what would San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders write about if Berkeley didn't spoon-feed her inanities on a regular basis?

Undoubtedly stung by such titters, the city's Civic Arts Commission has resolved to cement a new image in the mind of America, that of a sensible Berkeley, shorn of its '60s locks and ready to get down to business. And they've done it by planting a four-story tuning fork, which vibrates at the frequency of the earth, right in the middle of downtown.

Observers may be forgiven for wondering "What's up with this hippie shit?" Designed by Chinese sculptor Po Shu Wang, the tuning fork -- or, as the Civic Arts Commission has dubbed it, the Earth Song -- rises in all its cherry-red serenity out of the median at Shattuck Avenue and Center Street, humming away at a frequency too low for mammalian ears. "It will be activated continuously with energy provided by the phenomena in its immediate environment -- movement of BART trains, automobile and pedestrian traffic, and natural forces -- all the while converting vibrations into the fundamental pitch of the earth," gushed a commission press release last month. Think of all the potential ramifications of this innovative new device. Mongolian throat-singers everywhere are surely trembling at the imminent mechanization of their craft. No longer will seismologists rely on dogs to predict earthquakes -- now they've got the Earth Song of Berkeley. And since we can't hear what the earth is humming, what could be its secret song? "Cat Scratch Fever," perhaps?

Lest you think the commission has taken temporary leave of its senses, brace yourselves for its latest offering. Just one block north of the tuning fork, at the very gateway to the city's vaunted arts district, commission officials plan to install a new sculpture, whose title alone, s-Hertogenbosch, is guaranteed to lure fascinated patrons to the theaters, parking garages, and 24-hour fitness centers that lie beyond. The sculpture, another breathless press release gushes, "will provide a compelling, organic contrast to the geometric forms of nearby structures." If, by that, the commission's staff means that it's a fourteen-foot mound of ceramic gloop resembling a plastic toy that's spent too much time in the microwave, you'll get no argument here.

But these two absurdities have done us at least one favor. By blighting the downtown landscape with asinine figurines, they force everyone who confronts them to ask a long-overdue question: Why is public art always so ghastly?

Berkeley is hardly the only city to embarrass itself with such monuments to silliness. Take a walk around downtown Oakland, and you'll find plenty of public sculpture so ridiculously abstract that you have to take it on faith that any of these offerings mean something. Take the sculpture at the heart of City Center, the 12th Street office and retail complex. Perched atop a squat fountain, four multihued fans, each consisting of roughly two dozen parallel rods, twist around one another in order to emphasize -- what, exactly? The piece is titled There! in an apparent effort to bury Gertrude Stein's oft-quoted but famously misunderstood remark once and for all. What's that supposed to mean? That we are too an important city? I'm just asking, 'cause a bunch of wings or fans or whatever doesn't say shit to me.

The centerpiece of Oakland's idiotic forays into public art has to be Bruce Beasley's sculpture at the San Pablo entrance to Frank Ogawa Plaza, the city's epicenter of government. Its name is Vitality, and it's a 31-foot-tall penis. Or maybe it's a boomerang. Or maybe an antiaircraft gun, as City Councilman Henry Chang once remarked. If it is a penis, it's a mighty crooked one, as if some Lothario's misspent youth had finally caught up with him. Bronze cubes pockmark the shaft as it stabs upward, leading passers-by to conclude that this particular organ has a bad case of venereal warts. Now, that's vitality!

Vitality says all you need to know about why public art inevitably degenerates into bland, abstract goo that never says anything concrete. Vitality wasn't the first candidate to greet visitors to the Oakland civic center. Back in 1998, the city had settled on a glass and steel sculpture by New York-based artist R.M. Fischer, but then the city's arts community started whining that the "elitist" selection process chose a nationally renowned artist instead of a struggling local one. So the city listened to the artists and started the process all over again -- which was its big mistake. After three years of squabbling, the Cultural Affairs Commission settled on the diseased sexual organ that currently rests in the plaza. The project actually required the approval of the city council, a surefire guarantee of mediocrity.

Any arts commission whose primary mission is not to make anyone angry simply isn't doing its job. No public sculpture can possibly represent all of Oakland's 400,000 residents, and art can't be good if it's too abstract and vague to offend anyone. But public art has been hamstrung by an absurd imperative to be all things to all people, and the result is nothing to nobody. Because Oakland is so focused on finding pieces with universal appeal, its art has been bled of the specificity that great art needs. Dan Fontes, a local muralist who has lived in Oakland all his life, pegs it right when he asks where's the statue of Huey Newton, or Isadora Duncan, or Bruce Lee. For that matter, where's the statue of Henry Kaiser? These may all be too concrete for Oakland, which is too busy erecting idiotic tributes to the dynamism of womanhood and other such concepts. Seventy years ago, abstract art was forceful and transgressive. But today, in the world of contemporary public art, abstract art is cowardice.


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