Apparently, Chicago public doesn't understand public art

Apparently, Chicago public doesn't understand public art
Public art in Chicago. Flickr/Carol Mitchell

Despite its reputation as a temple celebrating some of the world's greatest architecture, Chicago's public art seems to be confounding the understanding of both residents and reporters.

CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman has filed what the channel seems to view as an investigative story about Chicago spending millions of dollars on unpopular public art. The piece in question -- 18 lights with 343 bulbs which change colors -- doesn't even actually light the street, Zekman notes.

"So it wasn't about safety, it was just about art?" she is asked. "Totally decorative," she responds, invoking, perhaps unintentionally, an inappropriate aesthetic term that is very loaded.

If one needed more evidence of the damage to the journalistic enterprise that has resulted from arts sections and critic positions being slashed across the board, the CBS report doesn't even name the artist or the title of the work -- let alone pose questions about what the work means and what its context is.

Instead, the report features interviews with pedestrians, whose responses range from calling the work "out of place" (whatever that means was either never stated or left on the editing room floor) to expressing initial appreciation for the art, only to retract those estimations once Zekman revealed the price tag to them.

To keep things fair and balanced, the story takes the turn: "Still some say you can't put a price on art." (Of course prices are always put on art, which makes that a pretty silly transition.) The views articulated subsequently maintain that money must be spent on art to maintain Chicago's (apparently somewhat undeserved) reputation for being an art center, to change neighborhood feels, and for mysterious investment opportunities. (That last point coming from the Chicago Department of Transportation.)

If public art is just to be a prop around which one camp will rally and say it should be melted down and used to fund traffic lights and to fix potholes, and another camp will defend at all costs because it's Art with a capital ay, then Chicago would do better without it. Art isn't some magical or mystical thing that defies understand or intense questioning. The CBS story would have been a great opportunity to being with the price tag and use that as a launching point to then pose the important journalistic questions about the work (who made it, when, why, etc.) and examine whether it was worth the money once all of that data had been collected.

It's the same attention and respect that reporters would pay to a story about a shooting or some big company's fancy new iPhone app, after all. In this case, it remains to be seen whether the art in question was "decorative," but the investigative story about it was certainly merely decorative.

Filed under: Public art Chicago

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