Guest Column: Art for art’s sake?
With the recent handwringing over the aesthetic propriety of the new art-museum building plunked down onto Aspen’s East Hyman Avenue, we continue to be drawn into an old and ongoing debate about the function and impact of “public” art — that which appears in our parks and on our buildings and sidewalks and which may be promoted and funded by governments and civic institutions.
Typically, such art exists in part to transmit what a culture values about itself and seeks to perpetuate. New York’s 42nd Street Public Library proclaims that the truth will set us free, and the Statue of Liberty suggests that those who are free are best equipped to embody that truth. American town squares often feature equestrian statues of stalwart or dashing figures named Longstreet or Jackson or Lee, announcing that here is a community that recognizes things worth striving and dying for. A similar, if less martial, statement is made by the bronze-cast figure of Father Damien that stands on the steps leading up to Hawaii’s State Capitol Building.
And then there are all those other state capitol buildings whose columns and rotundas speak of the solidity, balance and hoped-for permanence of our newly recreated classical republic.
Here in Aspen, there is silvery Justice — sans blindfold — adorning the Pitkin County Courthouse, and beyond the pure white Mary in the churchyard across the street there is a vest-pocket public park where one may eat lunch or have a smoke next to the Ten Commandments. Farther south, at the base of Aspen Mountain in Rubey Park, a patriarchal skier from yesteryear bursts forth from beneath the overhanging branch of a fir tree.
Downvalley, on Basalt’s Midland Avenue, bronzed Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher-type children hang out by the old train station — so tastefully preserved by Alpine Bank — celebrating the town’s origin as a confluence of rail lines as well as of rivers.
There are those among us, to be sure, who decry the sentimentality and didacticism of such art often because they are cynically detached from the very values that it espouses. Like certain artists and aesthetes in the 19th century, they agree with Whistler that art should appeal to eye or ear “without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, (such) as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like,” all part of the “claptrap” of state religion.
But if we strip away all such “claptrap,” what are we left with? To find out, let’s travel a bit farther downvalley to Carbondale, a town with a heritage that you will never discover in its public art — with the exception of its somewhat bohemian character, acquired from the influx of hippies during the great hippie diaspora in the Reagan years, when most of America briefly returned to, well, to being America.
At the town’s new roundabout, Carbondale has chosen to make a bold artistic statement along the lines of the Colossus at Rhodes, shouting, “Behold, all ye who enter here.” Of course, having beheld what looks like a colossal upside-down eggbeater, some drivers opt not to enter but keep on truckin’ toward Redstone and Marble. Apparently, beauty is not in the eye of every beholder.
Those who elect to hang a left into town, however, do find much to behold. On Colorado Avenue across from City Hall stands a 10-foot-high cigar-store Indian escaped from the mind of Salvador Dali — a parti-colored Pocahontas in go-go boots, with an anatomy like Dolly Parton’s. She definitely draws the eye, while the mind remains behind, laboring to discover, well, something.
Less challenging is the gigantic set of headphones near the community theater, perched atop an invisible and no doubt empty head.
Back on the main drag, one can promenade among the many objets d’art that can be described variously as organic, edgy, kitschy or just plain fun.
Unfortunately, some of us are not looking for fun. What we seek is pathos. Inspiration. Sentimentality even. Some clue as to what brings us together as a community. We neither reject our past nor seek to escape our present but yearn to make them flower and bear fruit in our future before canker or frost nip the bud.
Although I lived in “Bonedale” for several years, now when I pause at the final stop sign before Catherine Store Road and glance in the rearview mirror, I find myself thinking, “Alas, I never knew ye.” I couldn’t even find you.
Like the boxy monolith dropped into the middle of Aspen, your art has come from some other place.
And I wish it had stayed there.
Chad Klinger is a retired college instructor who lives in Basalt.