Political tribalism didn’t start with public art and won’t be solved by public art. But if we can’t use it to work out a vocabulary of compromise, a language of productive disagreement, then all the controversy will have been a waste. Public art won’t save democracy, but it may at least remind us how easy democracy is to lose.
Every modern person in a pluralistic democracy such as ours must constantly question what he or she assumes to be true about the world. Every cosmopolitan, multi-cultural society in modern history has developed some culture of healthy doubt, and the US is no exception. Doubting our received beliefs is what allows different races, different religions, and those of different political viewpoints to avoid all-out war and, occasionally, even live in something approaching harmony. The opposite of doubt is certainty. And it’s certainty—the belief that no legitimate explanations for the world exist outside one’s own—that marches soldiers onto battlefields and flies planes into buildings.
Allegory‘s naked torso, fish scales, and alligator head caught Roti in the bear trap of the public’s idea of what art means. But the swift and silent way in which the mural was finally destroyed likewise highlights how limiting, perhaps even toxic, the idea of “the community” has become in its modern guise. According to several press accounts, opinions among the residents of Pittsburgh were split at best and, at worst, those opposing the mural may have been a minority, albeit a vocal and powerful one. But all of that complexity, with all of its potential for nuanced interpretation, was wiped away with the monolithic coat of gray paint that “the community” allegedly demanded.
Broad, common symbolic systems form part of what critic Michael Kimmelman has called the ‘aesthetic common denominator’ required of all public art. If the work doesn’t avail itself of that common denominator, one will be imposed on it, as it were, against its will. Ironically that imposition is likely to leave both the artist and the audience feeling aggrieved.
According to Roti’s own statement, Allegory does in fact have a very precise and unambiguous meaning for him personally: fishes represent humanity, the key represents the ability to stop time, and the moon represents uncontrollable forces of nature. For the artist, there is a neat one-to-one correspondence between images in the mural and their meanings in the real world. But the glossary needed for that translation exists in the artist’s head, not in any commonly understood, generally available mythos. That’s when audiences create their own meanings. In the privacy of a gallery or the controlled context of academic settings, this act is almost always benign. Many artists even cherish the ways in which audiences help them create meaning. But when the work is placed in a broader public space, those meanings occasionally get out of control.
Many contemporary artists have taken these ideas to a twenty-first-century extreme. This neosymbolist work can be almost photorealistic, yet it specifically rejects any commonly accessible reality or any established pictorial language. The more recognizable and readable the figures in the work, the more outlandish other elements of the composition must be in order to free it from the tether of common experience. Hence the explosion of pattern, color, and surreal narrative in many such works. The work of, for example, Marcy Starz, Jason R. Butcher, and Joe Tsambiras exemplify this mode of working. All three local artists, along with others working elsewhere such as Camille Rose Garcia and Os Gêmeos, might be considered neosymbolists whose exquisitely drafted works are replete with private symbols and obscure, self-contained narratives.
Monument building isn’t a giant industry.
Monuments are positive, uplifting elements in society that strive to produce a more realistic level of generating hope and alleviating despair.
The dark side of history is better conveyed [in monumental form] with modern architecture.
It is absolutely necessary the [transportation] solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east where most Braves fans travel from, and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.
— Joe Dendy, “Cobb Co. Republican Party Chairman on the Braves Move,” 2013
We built a stadium on ground we didn’t own with money we didn’t have for a team we hadn’t signed.
— Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, “On the Moving the Braves from Milwaukee,” c. 19 (via saporta)
For-profit teams owe no allegiance to cities, even if cities (and counties) have been nothing but loyal to them.