Pete's random thoughts

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Good art vs bad art

Last night just after 3AM I woke up thinking about famous American monuments and art. Since my daughter is 10 years old, I am often called upon to explain the significance of historical events and monuments. All over the country, there are famous monuments to historic events, people and places. Some are good, some are bad. The way I define the difference is whether or not you need to read a plaque to get the message. Good art doesn't need to be explained.

Here are some examples. The Marine Corps War Memorial is an iconic image that everyone recognizes. It is also commonly known as the Iwo Jima Memorial. When I was a year or two older than my daughter is now, I saw it in person for the first time. I was in a tour bus and we rode by it at night as it was lit up with floodlights. There was no explanation needed. Anyone viewing the monument immediately conjures up the following thoughts: "Those guys are AWESOME" and "Those guys are determined to succeed at any cost". This is not good art, this is great art.

I haven't seen this one in person, but the next example is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, MO. Sorry, but this one only makes me think of McDonalds. Bad art.

This will probably piss some people off, but the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial is bad art. I'm not the only one to think it because they had to add a traditional bronze statue of three soldiers in order for the monument, as it was designed, to make any sense.

Gettysburg Battlefield is covered in sculptures and monuments. I read somewhere that there are over 1100 monuments and markers within the limits of the Gettysburg Battlefield National Park. Some are great, some are good, some are bad. Some make you feel like you are standing there in the middle of battle, some leave you scratching your head trying to figure out what they are supposed to mean.

Going back to Lowell, MA, my hometown, there is a mix of good and bad art. For instance, on Central St sticking out of a canal is the work "Human Construction". To me, it looks like they just never got around to tearing down an old mill and it gives you the impression that the city is too lazy or cheap to finish the cleanup of the canal. It baffles me when tourists get all sentimental about it and take pictures of a pile of rocks. Bad art.

A couple of blocks away, though, is a monument to the Irish immigrants that built the canal system. It is called "The Worker". While you may debate the need to have a monument to ditch-diggers, it is still a better piece of art than "Human Construction" because it needs no explanation.

A couple of blocks over from that is the Ladd-Whitney monument. Ladd and Whitney were two Lowell soldiers who were killed in the Baltimore riots at the outbreak of the Civil War and are considered the first casualties of it. One was killed by a thrown brick and the other by a thrown chamber pot. I suppose it is hard to replicate that with a tasteful statue, and a phallic obelisk will have to suffice.

Speaking of phallic monuments, consider these: The Washington Monument, The Bunker Hill Monument, the Bennington Battlefield Monument etc. all are bad art. They simply are not evocative of the subjects that they are intended to memorialize. Bad art.

Closer to where I live nowadays is the Augustus St. Gaudens home. He was the sculptor who designed the $20 gold piece and his home & workshop is now a National Park site. He is the guy who did the Shaw Memorial that is on Boston Common. The memorial depicts Shaw mounted on a horse alongside of a column of the 54th Massachusetts, the famous all-black unit that was portrayed in the movie 'Glory'. This had the potential to be great art, but I think he dropped the ball a little. The sculpture itself is amazing in that it successfully pulls off a 3-d image that looks deeper than it is and he put excruciating detail into the piece, but it doesn't full capture the spirit of the historic moment in time. I'll call this one mediocre art.

On the other hand, one of St Gauden's other works, the Adams Memorial, is quite moving and qualifies as great art. It was commissioned to memorialize a guy's wife who had committed suicide. The statue is an androgynous seated figure mostly hidden by a shroud. Just being in the presence of this statue gives you the feeling of sadness, loss, and the mystery of death.

Meanwhile, on Mt. Rushmore, four giant dead president's faces peer out of the rock. Why? I have to admit, I have never been there but we have all seen photos of it. The first thing I think of when I see it is "Hmm, I wonder if their butts are carved on the other side of the mountain?" (disclaimer: I first saw this concept illustrated in Mad Magazine in the early 1970's...but it stuck). Yup: bad art.