Whose Art Is It Anyway?

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The-2BBean-2B-1--1I’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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Ike Is a Highway

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obama+i55The news that the State of Illinois just designated a stretch of Interstate 55 the Barack Obama Presidential Expressway could not be more timely. Having returned from a recent trip to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, I was musing on the ways in which residents of different cities refer to their expressways.

Twin Cities denizens are logical and matter of fact. They refer to their highways by number: 94, 394, 494, 694 etc. Outside of Highway 35, which is a north/south route that branches off into an East side road and a West side road, such references make it easy for the out-of-towner to get around without confusion.

Out in Los Angeles, where I lived for a number of years, residents also use numbers to refer to their expressways, even though many of the highways have names, such as the Santa Monica Freeway and the San Diego Freeway. The twist is that for some reason, Angelenos like to put a “the” in front of the highway number. So it’s the 10, the 405, the 5, and so on. The only major road known by its name more than its number is Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, known to locals as the PCH.

Here in the Chicago area, we like to call our expressways by name. I-290 is the Eisenhower, I-55 the Stevenson, I-294 the Tri-State. I-94 is variously called the Dan Ryan or the Edens, depending upon what part of the city it is headed toward.  I-90 changes its name from the Kennedy Expressway to the Rockford (or Jane Addams, if you prefer) Tollway as it heads northwest away from the airport. As you might imagine, this can make things a bit confusing for people from out of town. To make matters worse, we’ve nicknamed the Eisenhower Expressway “the Ike,” so a newcomer listening to a traffic report of congestion on the Ike might have no idea what road is being referenced.

The only interstate that is consistently referred to by number and not name is 88, the Reagan Memorial Tollway. (I have my theories as to why that might be.)

I like to think it’s our friendly folksiness that makes Chicagoans so chummy with our roadways that we like to call them by name. On the downside, the gridlock faced by commuters on most of these roadways can give the historical figures for which they are named a bad rap. Let’s just say that in Chicago, I don’t like Ike.

It might not be fun driving in heavy traffic down the newly named Barack Obama Presidential Expressway through Springfield. But it will be entertaining to start hearing the radio news choppers reporting, “Traffic is heavy on the outbound Obama” or “A crash has shut down two lanes of the Obama.” Who knows? Maybe before too long we’ll be calling it “the Barry.”

Unforgotten in “Chiraq”

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The statues are eerily lifelike and fully dressed in the clothes young teens might wear. They hold backpacks and guitar cases, stand or sit in realistic poses. But they have no faces, just a blank hole where their heads should be. They are “Unforgotten,” an exhibit dotting the landscape of downtown Chicago.

Each statue represents a young person gunned down in Illinois in the recent past. Their purpose is to highlight the huge loss to our society caused by handgun violence. According to the Chicago Tribune, more than 400 people in Chicago were killed last year.

Such persistent, meaningless violence has led critics to dub the city “Chiraq,” a name that is causing some controversy. As Chicago rapper Aaron Pierce put it, “That name belittles our city, and I feel like it dehumanizes us.” Yet it is the name filmmaker Spike Lee has chosen for an upcoming movie.

Is it fair? Is Chicago a war zone? From the almost daily headlines, it would seem that there is a similarity between our city and a place where terrorism runs rampant. Yet statistically, violence in Chicago “has been on a steady decline since the early to mid-1990s.” (Chicago Tribune)

Perhaps it’s the prevalence of online sites, You Tube videos, and social media that have brought gun deaths to light more and more. More likely, though, it is the proliferation of handguns. According to Joseph Erbentraut in the Huffington Post, while the total number of homicides showed a modest decrease from 2013 to 2014, the number of shootings went up. As Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said with reference to the increase, “If these guys are throwing rocks at each other we wouldn’t have this problem.” (Erbentraut, Huff Post, 12/31/14)

Supporters of gun rights have been the winners in recent years in terms of the lax control on gun sales and the success of open carry laws. But Americans are fighting the trend. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an organization dedicated to stopping senseless gun violence, has been waging a battle in state houses across the country to gain common sense legislation controlling who has access to guns. They are also defeating open carry legislation, especially with regard to guns in schools.

It may be an uphill battle, but many people are saying, Enough is enough. On a recent sunny day, families and passersby wept as they gazed at the hollow statues posed in the St. James Cathedral Plaza in Chicago. It’s time to put a stop to the rampant gun violence in our city, retire the ugly title “Chiraq,” and make sure our children living and dead are “unforgotten.”

 

You Can Go Home Again

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For the nearly nine years I lived in Los Angeles, I pined for home. Of course I missed my family and friends back in Chicago. But I also missed summer thunderstorms and fireflies. (Chicagoans call them lightning bugs.) I missed block parties and reliable public transportation. I missed the change of seasons, and I recalled my mother admonishing us, “Get outside! It’s a beautiful day!” In L.A., every day is a beautiful day.

I missed deep dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches, and Fannie May candies. But most of all, I missed the down home friendliness of Chicagoans. Where I lived in L.A., residents did not mow their own lawns or trim their own bushes. Kids did not run back and forth across the street to play with the neighbor kids. And, of course, there was no snow to shovel.

When my husband, two kids and I moved back to Chicago in 1997, I was determined to relive my fondest memories. But White Castle hamburgers just didn’t taste the same. And when my husband and I took the kids to our favorite hotdog joint in the city, I found the place dirty and disgusting. Maybe my former enjoyment of the place had been influenced by alcohol and being in love. And when the first good summer storm hit, my kids and I were terrified, not thrilled. I was starting to agree with the title of the Thomas Wolfe book You Can’t Go Home Again.

But that summer, I did get a taste of the simple pleasures I remembered from my childhood. Around the corner from our house was the public pool, and the kids and I spent countless hours there swimming, getting out of the pool for “rest period,” and eating ice cream sandwiches at the snack bar. In our neighborhood, kids really did run back and forth across the quiet street to play with each other. And at dusk, I noticed lightning bugs starting to glow in our front yard. So I grabbed the kids and a glass jar with holes poked into the lid so that we could go out and catch the bugs as they lit up the lawn.

One afternoon I got the idea to recreate a childhood memory by taking the kids downtown to visit Buckingham Fountain, which sits majestically overlooking Lake Michigan. As a child, I went there countless times with my family of 13, who made the most of any activities that were free. We would run around the fountain until dark and then ooh and aah at the spectacular light show. My husband warned me not to get my hopes up with my “vision thing,” as he calls it when I get nostalgic. And my kids whined during the long car ride in traffic on the always busy Eisenhower (aka the Ike) Expressway. By the time I parked the car and we walked through Grant Park to the fountain, I was feeling discouraged.

But when the kids saw the fountain, they exuberantly ran around and around it until I got dizzy watching them. My son was undeterred by the low metal fence that surrounds the fountain to discourage people from getting too close. So I spent a lot of time grabbing him and keeping him from jumping in the fountain. But the real magic happened at dusk. To the tune of lively classical music, the water began to leap and dance and the lights changed colors from orange to deep red to blue to deepest indigo. My kids oohed and aahed, and I knew I was home again.

 

Tale of Two Cities

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My recent trip to Manhattan has me reflecting on the differences between Chicago and New York. We Chicagoans always seem to be on the defensive when it comes to comparisons between these two great cities. We see New Yorkers as our smug older siblings, lording it over us that they have more style and swagger.

It’s true that New York is bigger and brasher. Chicago is now only the third most populous city in the United States, having been overtaken by Los Angeles in the 1990s. New York has more of just about everything: museums, art galleries, restaurants, theaters, music venues, shopping.

Here in Chicago we have a lively downtown financial district, but New York has the famed Wall Street. We have Broadway in Chicago, but New York has, well, Broadway! Our skyscrapers such as the Willis Tower and the John Hancock Building are well known but not as iconic as the Empire State Building. And there is nothing else in the US quite like Times Square.

Nevertheless, I much prefer my hometown for the following reasons:

1. Chicago has alleys. While not the most exciting feature of our city, at least we have a place to hide all our garbage until the city sanitation workers can pick it up.

2. We have the lakefront. The beautiful expanse of Lake Michigan to the east makes a dramatic setting for our museums, high rise condos, parks, and beaches. If you want to go to the beach in New York, you have to travel out to one of the boroughs.

3. Chicago is not as crowded. Even on the Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s beautiful shopping district and tourist haven, there is not the sense of claustrophobia I feel while exploring the streets of New York City.

4. Our architecture is magnificent. Some of the premier architects in history – Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, and Mies Van der Rohe, to name a few, have helped shape the skyline and character of the Second City. Chicago is also known as the birthplace of the skyscraper.

5. Chicago is much more affordable. The first time I ever saw a Manhattan co-op that had cost its owners half a million dollars, I was shocked. It was more like a dorm room than an apartment.

6. Most importantly, Chicagoans are friendly. Whether walking the streets of the city or frequenting the local bars, you feel a sense of camaraderie that I have never noticed in New York.

No matter its status as second class citizen to the Big Apple, I am happy to be a denizen of “sweet home Chicago.”