There are a lot of public art works in America that have been commissioned by cities and public institutions, only to be met with head scratching, derision or outrage at the price tag by the public that it was created for. The internet is littered with "worst of" lists that mock several of these public art works. Many of them are conceptual. Some are modernistic or minimalist to the point that one can't help but look at them and think...WTF is this? Others are just plain tacky (think of Chicago's 28 ft tall statue of Marilyn Monroe). One thing virtually all public art in the United States is not, however, is overtly political. Heck, it's rare for them to be even subversively political.
Americans, as a people, are enormously thin skinned and easily provoked into a posture of shocked indignation. There is also a strain of rubishness, IMO, that runs through our national character, which manifests itself as a general tentativeness with respect to art... almost distrust. A fear, perhaps, that everyone else "gets it" except for oneself. And in a country where feelings are hurt so easily, controversial public art is for all practical purposes forbidden by Civic Leaders.
Last year the city of Milan, Italy (Italy's financial capitol) allowed a sculpture by the controversial artist Maurizio Cattelan to be displayed in its Bourse Square, directly in front of the Milan Stock Exchange. Cattelan offered to donate the sculpture, entitled L.O.V.E., to the city, but city administrators demurred. Tolerance for controversial art, it seems, has its limits even in Europe. The sculpture, if viewed in a museum setting, would perhaps be just another piece of modernist art with obscure meaning. Placed upon a pedestal in front of the Milan Stock Exchange, however, it immediately communicated an unmistakable political message. If you haven't seen it, follow the link:
But that we might see a piece of art such as this here in the United States. Can you imagine the power of such a sculpture in front of our own citadel of Capitalism, the New York Stock Exchange? Or the Federal Reserve Buildings in either NYC or Washington? I can't either. The degree to which freedom of expression is tolerated is all too often inversely related to how effective and powerful it's message is.
Cattelan's middle finger in front of Milan's stock exchange is a wonderfully subversive piece of public art. The controversy it elicited was both about the gesture itself and, at the same time, a debate as to whom the gesture was being directed.
Conservative newspapers were quick to decry the artistic insult to and implied hostility towards the financial market, industry...business in general. Cattelan was flipping off both our system of international finance and those who make their livings and fortunes in it. But was he, really? Look at the hand again. The palm is facing the marble edifice and massive stone columns of that institution. As displayed in Milan's Bourse Square, it is the Stock Exchange, and all that it represents, that is giving the bird to the rest of the world. To those standing in front of the building have not seen their own fortunes rise with the stock market, whose lives, indeed, may be marked by severe economic uncertainty, Cattelan's sculpture puts words into the mouths of the financial elite that they dare not utter in public: "Fuck you. Too bad, so sad. Now buzz off."
As buttoned down traders at the Chicago Board of Trade contemptuously dropped copies of job applications from McDonalds onto OWS protesters in the street, who can plausibly deny that those words do not accurately reflect the attitude of Wall Street, London's Bankers and Milan's Stock Exchange? The message is fairly well assumed by most people on both sides. The only thing then, in the end, that is truly controversial about the sculpture is the impoliteness of drawing attention to it in public.
Milan only allowed the sculpture to be displayed in the square for ten days. But it lives on in images...photographs, on the internets...engraved in the memories, even, of those who were fortunate enough to stand in front of it. It forced people to think, to debate...to notice. That's exactly what art should do. Perhaps public art especially.
As effective as political poster art can be, it is temporal. There's something about the permanence of this sculpture that I find very appealing. It's too bad it can't go on an international tour and be temporarily installed in front of similar institutions here and elsewhere.