I’ve been seeing numerous articles about art in public spaces and the various controversies that go along with such visible displays. Coming from Chicago, a city rich in the arts, I grew up accustomed to iconic works of art on display throughout the downtown area.
As a Chicagoan, you might give directions referencing this art, such as, “Turn right at the Picasso and head south to the Chagall.” Or your point of reference might be Millennium Park’s iconic “Cloud Gate,” affectionately known to Windy City denizens and tourists as “The Bean.” Love them or hate them, these works of art have become part and parcel of our city landscape.
Recently a famous Alexander Calder sculpture was removed from the former Sears Tower, now grudgingly known as the Willis Tower. Art lovers wondered what fate lay in store for such a well-known and beloved piece as this work titled “The Universe.” At the same time, there has been some talk of redeveloping a square designed by Mies van der Rohe that has been home to Calder’s bright red “Flamingo” sculpture since 1974. Such discussions and actions bring up the question, To what extent do public works of art belong to the people?
Art has the power to inspire, invigorate, and sometimes divide people. Not long ago, the statue of “Fearless Girl” was planted directly across from “Charging Bull” in New York City’s financial district – with mixed reviews. Many women see “Fearless Girl” as a challenge to the largely male domain of Wall Street. The sculptor who created “Charging Bull,” however, sees it as an affront to the work he had installed there originally. He has tried unsuccessfully to have “Fearless Girl” removed.
The controversy over these works shows that public art is so important that the artists who create it give up some control once their work becomes part of the public domain. I’ve read that Anish Kapoor, the creator of “Cloud Gate,” objected to the location of the sculpture and dislikes the “stupid” nickname given it. Likewise, it can seem trivializing to sit next to the exquisite “Four Seasons” mosaic by Marc Chagall and wolf down a hotdog. I remember having a strange feeling while visiting Beijing’s Forbidden City. These ancient relics looked so prosaic with people just lounging around on their steps and showing very little respect for or interest in them.
At the same time, there can be no greater tribute to artists and to the power of art than in the passionate way the public embraces such works as “Flamingo,” “Fearless Girl,” and Cloud Gate.” That unnamed Picasso sculpture that has been vilified over the years has nevertheless become part and parcel of Chicago’s Daley Center Plaza, and without it, and other iconic works of art, our city and our world would be greatly diminished.