A city official contacted the local high school with a bad idea.
He had a dozen unused fire hydrants and a misguided desire to support the local art community.
That’s how I ended up in art class with an assignment to transform fire hydrants into art.
To be sure we understood the assignment we repeated it back to the art teacher.
"So you want us to paint the fire hydrants?"
"That’s, right. You can paint whatever you want, and the winning submission gets to split a $100 prize with your group."
After a week blindly trying to figure out what to paint I added some gold fish to my hydrant and tried to forget the whole thing ever happened. A month later the fire hydrants were on display, proudly bolted to a slab of cement on the side of the road, an annual eye sore welcoming visitors to Wentzville, Missouri.
Does my disdain for public art offend you? It’s not polite to criticize public art projects. As citizens we are supposed to just smile, nod, and feel fuzzy feelings. You have you keep your true feelings, the suppression of vomit, to yourself.
If you are an artist living in a city with a public art project you hope nobody blames you for it. Lincoln, Nebraska is covered with ugly bike-shaped sculptures covered with even uglier paintings. Loveland, Colorado lets people paint their electric boxes. Your city probably has its own version of the tragedy.
Cities are generally ugly places, why should beautification attempts enrage me more than the normal ugliness of neglect? It all stems from a tragic corruption of good intention that confirms people’s worst suspicions about artists. Let me explain.
Non-artists see the ugly art scattered around their city and suspect that the whole circus is a frivolous misuse of funds. But politeness prevents them from objecting and they endure the charade out of a vague notion about "the arts" and culture. The artists continue the fraud either out of ignorance or a misguided sense of duty to support their fellow artisans.
As a bystander trying to understand the hellscape it’s easy to conclude that the important work gets done by professionals and afterward an artist is hired to apply a thin layer of gloss on top of the ugliness. The second part is optional and depends purely on how much frosting you like squeezed on top of your cupcakes.
If you are a creative person with a conscience you are desperate to make the world a better place and yet you can’t shake the decorator stereotype, the expectation that your job is to squirt your personal style onto half-baked biscuits.
Why does public art infuriate me so much? Because it is such a hard cycle to break. The artists are excluded from everyday production processes because their contribution is perceived as superficial. After the work is done, the artist is called in to add some lipstick, and the artist obliges. But this just reinforces the stereotype and the cycle loops back on itself. The debt compounds endlessly, the world getting a little worse with each spin of the mop.
We end up in dystopia and we can’t figure out how we got here. We wonder why everything is so ugly. Somebody should do something! And the only solution anyone can think of is to apply yet another coat of paint.
Thanks for reading. I write weekly, adding a fresh coat of paint to my world every Saturday morning. Stay creative.
Previous: Gravity Prayers
Next: Lost in Sawdust