Gustafson: Round and round we go |

Gustafson: Round and round we go

Human-made creations of more than ordinary significance that evoke emotion — that’s one definition of art. And art inherently solicits criticism. I believe that if it doesn’t give you pause to think, art isn’t working. Public art, however, stirs up a different set of emotional responses and invites raw, often honest and unrefined scrutiny.

Traditionally commissioned, and paid for by a sponsor, public art usually evolves in a way that is different from the methods that originate other forms. Artists often relinquish some of their creative control, and a public open-air setting makes every passerby a critic. A clash with local residents and the art world historically ensues and often results in political intervention.

As I perused through the online discussions surrounding the proposed piece that may find itself erected in the middle of our new flashy roundabout, I felt torn between my contemporary art-lessness, my sentimental perspective and my desires to keep our town current yet tastefully harmonious.

In a cityscape, public art provides a nice counterbalance to the bombardment of marketing and media images, though we are so fortunate to have ordinances against these in our area. And we have panoramic natural focal points here, and therefore it feels like our public art interests can often have a different end goal.

It’s been said that “public art — like trees in the natural world — produces the oxygen of our built environment.” The thing is, we have trees here — lots of them.

I often feel somewhat offended when my view of Mount Daly is obstructed, or when our naturally breathtaking topography is forced to compete for visual attention. So I completely connected with the requests to simply plant a tree in the roundabout, or (whispering now) clean up that clumsy overly complicated and overdone mess all together.

Now, back to the visuals: public art deserves the respect of fair analysis, and since art cannot be objective, it’s as subjective as a physical object can be. Still it seems public art has a different set of talking points which might be taken into consideration.

Perhaps we should pose a few questions. First, ownership: to whom does the space — not the property — but the visual air space belong? Second, identity: does it resonate with the majority of its “owners”? In other words, does it reflect the town’s character or engage positively with our community and forward our message to our visitors? And finally, what are our rights in a public space? Is, or should, public art be democratic? Like public schools, should it be teaching the general public what a few highly placed individuals think it should learn, or should it pander to the lowest common denominator and make everyone sigh from its cutie-cuteness? Perhaps it should facilitate an exchange of ideas, or seek to engage the community.

As of this writing, neither side of my internal debate has convinced the other. So I speak for the general gut-reaction I’m hearing on the street (i.e. Facebook), since public discussions happen less on the street and more on the super-highway these days.

At last check, the majority of the opinions that have been voiced seem to say nay to the current proposal. It seems the piece may not mesh well with its surroundings, or at the very least it overly competes with the natural aesthetics that are already obstructed by the circular mass of (whispering again) the colorfully confusing concrete circus of flashing lights.

Perhaps it also begs the question from us common folk, “where are the Emperor’s clothes?”

The ongoing debate over whether public art should be a work of artistic genius or a collaborative effort between the residents and the artist will continue and, though we may do our best here, we will not likely solve the conundrum.

However, I am grateful for the open discussion it has provoked; and since I’m pretty sure the function of art is not to be overly pleasing, but rather to conjure up a reaction, taking into consideration that point of view, I genuinely applaud the artist. And personally speaking, I think I’m actually OK with it. But if it were directly up to me, I would probably vote for a tree. Though given all of the outrageous topics we could be debating at this moment in history, I’m okay with subordinating my artistic naivete, and accepting this unusual gift to our town — as long as it is a genuine gift, no strings attached.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind, after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at


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