Not again – the uproar over “Arc of History” has an upside, a funny bone and a deep history.
Every public-art installation in Durango has brought out complaints, jokes and the always popular “why wasn’t I consulted” crowd. It’s rare for anyone to blurt out “I love it” or thank the Public Arts Commission for all its volunteer time and effort. So here’s a little perspective, not that it will help when the next work is unveiled.
Our public artworks are arrived at through a lengthy process: a call, a period for public comment and a final vote by the Public Arts Commission. In this case, “Arc of History” required an additional nod from the Colorado Department of Transportation because the department owns the traffic island on which the sculpture sits. That’s a lot of input.
Among the nicknames already proffered, I rather like Rocks on a Rod or Stone Shish Kebab. Constructed out of Southwestern rocks and strung on a horizontal arc of steel, the work is a variation on ancient stone cairns, grave or trail markers made of piled rocks. Do cairns qualify as one of the earliest forms of abstract sculpture?
That aside, the current uproar reminds me of the long, colorful history of public-art protests from the Greeks forward.
In 450 B.C., Pericles rekindled civic pride after the Persians all but destroyed Athens. He ordered a massive public-building program for the Acropolis. There was a huge outcry about funding.
The Romans marked major military victories with triumphal arches. By the time Constantine defeated Maxentius in 312, Romans were exhausted and bored by the pomp and expense, so the emperor ordered his architects to recycle marble elements from other structures. The practice came to be known as spolia. And there was an uproar.
In 1887, civil engineer Gustave Eiffel won a competition to build a public work for the Paris Exposition. Now the pride and symbol of France, Eiffel’s magnificent cast-iron tower showcased a new building material. Visitors found it fascinating; critics called it monstrous, ugly and useless.
In the U.S., our own public-art history is peppered with such responses. Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam Memorial was mocked when chosen and scoffed at for years as an insult, a black slit in the landscape. Criticism was so heavy that two traditional statues were added, the bronze Three Soldiers and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. It took decades and 3 million visitors a year to acknowledge the deep emotional experience the abstract monument evokes.
The World War II Memorial took 50 years to become a reality and 17 hard years of fundraising. When it was dedicated in 2004, it was derided as having a so-called fascist design. The symmetrical layout has many traditional trappings, but still it faced an uproar.
I could go on.
I teach this stuff and have a lifelong interest in public art. It’s a grand history – nations coming to terms with events, or a small town simply wanting to enhance a troublesome intersection.
Our modest sculpture is not France’s Arc de’Triomphe (built between 1806-36), itself an reworking of Rome’s Arch of Titus. But to my mind, our Arc combines two ideas: ancient stone cairns and the idea of an entry arch.
I like the sculpture, and as you can tell, it’s fun to muse about context.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, art historian and arts journalist.