October 11, 2007

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Publisher's Note: Art, art — what is it good for?
By Jody Reese

This week’s cover story looks at abstract art and what role it has in the world of art and to some extent in the public sphere.

Abstract art seems to be popping up in public places in southern New Hampshire. The expanded Currier Museum of Art recently added an abstract piece by Mark di Suvero. The Verizon Wireless Arena did something similar, as has Nashua’s Riverwalk.

These pieces have led some to question the place of art in a community, especially if it’s paid for by public money, as the Nashua piece was.

It’s good to talk about art and how it fits into our communities, just as we would talk about new buildings, music or monuments – all kinds of art in public.

Abstract expressionist sculptures and paintings tend to get the most negative attention especially by those who think government’s role should be limited. Monuments, on the other hand, tend to get a pass because it’s usually clear what those sculptures represent. In the case of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, however, at the time it was proposed many criticized the design because it wasn’t a traditional memorial. Today it is seen as one of the most successful monuments in the country, evoking very strong feelings. Great poems, works of music and pieces of architecture can do the same thing. The same goes for expressionist sculptures.

One of my favorite pieces is the whale tails sticking out of a ground along the highway in Burlington, Vt. To me they points out how silly life can be, because the whale tails are planted in the earth in a place far from the ocean. If the whale tails were in Rye within view of the ocean, they would so blend in that they would have little impact on people looking at them.

People like to build things. We’ve been painting on the walls since we could. It’s one of the main things that makes us human and draws a line between us and all the other animals. This ability to be creative, to express complicated feelings, is a gift. So why would it be unusual for us to create works of art to share with our neighbors?

That’s exactly what sculptures do. By being large and in public places, they express a feeling or sentiment to the public, similar to a music concert.

That leads to the question of whether or not taxpayer money should ever be used to pay for expressionist or abstract sculptures. National museums all over the world, including our own, buy or receive as donations these works. But what about a city putting up money for such a piece?

Does a local government have a role in making us feel better? Historically it has by paying for public music, firework displays, monuments and pleasing landscaping. We should treat sculptures the same way.

Art is good for us. As a society we spend billions and billions trying to feel better with everything from flowers to prescription drugs; why not spend a few bucks here and there on a beautiful sculpture in front of a public building or in a park?.