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 The Process

(by which Public Art is acquired)

I've been involved in public art most of my life, one way or another. The art may have been more or less abstract, but most of the time my involvement in it was not abstract at all: I hauled it around on a tractor-trailer, professionally.


I also made some, and made some decisions about some, and now I'm officially on a municipal subcommission entrusted by the City of Richmond to advise about all of the public art in town. One thing I never had to get too involved in, something that I've found out more about since joining the Richmond Public Art Advisory Commission, is what seems to be known as The Process.


In the world of public art, The Process seems to start with a need for public art, and to end with the placement of a piece of public art. What goes in between is as chock full of non sequiturs as anything Franz Kafka ever wrote, including all of The Trial, quite a bit of Metamorphosis, and my personal favorite, Der Kubelreiter (The Bucket Rider.) The Process is a funny name for the public art acquisition process, since it's so reminiscent of Der Prozess, Kafka's famous novel about an endless quasi-judicial torment at the hands of a bunch of bureaucrats (Kafka's novel is usually known in English as The Trial.)


Let's not critique the Process. I've heard a number of earnest talks and discussions about how to work with it and within it and around it, and my little critique of it would just be another round of, well, The Process. Let's just say that when you're talking about Art, or Science, you just don't know the answer before you start. You can't, by definition. You're not supposed to. It's SUPPOSED to be creative, and above all original.


Now that concept, right there, is no small piece to swallow. It flies in the face of what they taught you in school, about science at any rate; and it also conflicts somewhat with what's customary with The Process. With the science, which is something I know a little bit about, we teach the kids in school about the "Scientific Method", with a Hypothesis, and an Experiment, and some Observations, and the Results, and finally your conclusion.


Let's cut right to the chase here: All of the really big breakthroughs were discoveries made by accident, when the Investigator was looking for something else, or nothing in particular, but had their eyes wide open (preparatory to having them opened really wide.) Madame Curie was not looking for radium, much less curium. And Whatsisname, the French guy, was not looking for cytochromes (see, it gets pretty arcane pretty fast, but that's not the point.)


With the art, it's a different story but the same deal. A Purchaser of Art starts out, quite earnestly, to buy a Great Piece of Art; or an Appropriate Piece of Art; or a Monumental Piece of Art; or whatever the Vision that the Ordinance called for, or the Corporate Resolution, or the Enabling Legislation. It's all in advance. It's all planned, or will be. There will be a Committee, and the Committee will Commission whatever it was the overlying body were supposed to have committed to. What it comes down to is a preselection process for the artists, and then a final selection for the Artist, and it's based, mostly, on the artists' prior work. Slides, generally. And a shuffle through the resumes, too, just to make sure we have a solid contender here, no fly by nights or slackers or Johnny-come-Latelies.


Let's cut to the chase here too, about the art: Don't buy a pig in a poke. There's plenty of stuff out there, all done and ready to fly out the door, and you won't have to look too long or too hard to find just what would glorify your City or your Mayor or your Veterans or whomever you wish to honor, or to exalt the Spirit of [fillintheblank]. If you are having a problem shoehorning a piece you like into the acquisition mode you're supposed to be operating under, then trust me, just ask the artist, or the gallery owner, or any maven who's good with the connoisseurship, and he or she will spin you a tale about The Art that will absolutely convince you that this particular piece, five years in the making, was conceptualized, designed and fabricated with precisely [whatever you have in mind] in mind.


That's it, in a nutshell; Buy Extant Art.


"Slogans are what people use to save themselves the trouble of thinking," Mark Twain wrote. That's good, the slogan Buy Extant Art; it saves people the trouble of thinking, because all the thinking in the world can't prestidigitate a great piece of art or even a good one. Mostly what you get is a lot of hot air.


As a municipality, you just make it your business to provide a nice slab and a plinth or two, and I guarantee you, there will be starvin' artists aplenty to fill them up with some nice art; or some racy art; or some adventuresome art, or whatever you think you need. My only recommendation is that the Committee, before they start their deliberations, decide right up front that they will either be avant garde, or that they shall not. It's not nice to waste people's time. Phrase it this way: Folks, just how contoversial are we willing to get here? If you talk about it, beforehand, you just might find that your citizens actually need, want, and welcome a little controversy, but not an excessive amount. No, they don't want a big mural of a Crucifix drowning in piss. Nobody does. Who needs that? Do they want something, well, interesting? Sure they do. Just ask'em.


Richard Katz Pt Richmond CA 2003




(c) 2003 Richard Katz. FrogOJT Systems, Berkeley, CA. email to Richard Katz

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