Time to democratize public art


Daily Post Editor

If you heard cheering Friday morning, it’s because people read our story about the Palo Alto Public Art Commission’s decision to rid the community of two terrible pieces of art.

The worst is “Go Mama” — a grotesque sculpture of a doll with a child’s face in the stomach — that mars the corner of California Avenue and Ash Street. I’m surprised there haven’t been more accidents on Cal Ave by drivers distracted by this abomination. I’m sure this hideous statue has given people nightmares.

Businesses complained about it, but it just remained there, and people got used to it. One businessman compared the situation to the Stockholm Syndrome, when kidnapping victims develop an affection toward their captors.

The other ugly artwork that will be carted away is “Digital DNA,” the giant egg in Lytton Plaza at the corner of University Avenue and Emerson Street. While not as offensive as Go Mama, it struck me as a pointless waste of space. Nothing clever, funny or thoughtful. Just a ball of junk that sticks out like a sore thumb.

Political censorship?

The artist who gave us Digital DNA, Adriana Varella, is deeply offended that the city is removing it, calling the action “political censorship.” In a statement to the Art Commission, Varella said the egg “talks about how our modern technology can enslave us.” No, it felt more like we were being enslaved by ugly art.

The only statement the egg makes is: “Palo Altans are stupid enough to tolerate any piece of garbage if you call it art.”

It’s like when you go to an art gallery and see a canvas spattered with random smears of paint. Everybody stands there and pretends as if the artist had made a deeply meaningful statement.

Somebody says something like, “We have to remember that the true art lies within the artistic process.” Everyone nods their heads knowingly.

Then somebody reads the little card below the canvas and sees that it was painted by a gorilla in a zoo.

I should point out, however, that the Art Commission, in voting to remove these sculptures, wasn’t swayed by public opinion.

Oh no, we can never have the art snobs bow to the tastes of the bourgeoisie. The official reason given for removing Go Mama and Digital DNA was that they had fallen into disrepair.

In fact, the city’s official policy on “deaccession” — the fancy word for jettisoning a piece of art — is that a request to remove an artwork needs to be reviewed in an atmosphere that is “independent of political pressures, fluctuations in artistic taste, popularity and public opinion.”

So when the city calls it “public art” the word “public” doesn’t really count. Such art is “public” only because it is foisted on the public, but the public doesn’t have any say in selecting it or removing it.

Let the public decide on public art

I’d like to see more public involvement in the selection and removal of public art. You’re probably familiar with that survey the city mails to everyone once a year about city services. I’d like the city to include in the survey pictures of some of the public art around town. Residents could rate the art on a 1-10 scale. The art getting the lowest ratings would be removed. We could select new art the same way — with pictures emailed to all residents and buttons for “yes” and “no.”

Artists are always saying they want to send a message to viewers and start a conversation. A public art plebiscite would certainly get people talking.

The other thing we should do is rotate out our public art. None of these works should be on display forever, unless the art constantly gets high approval ratings.

These changes would turn our “public art” into “popular public art.”

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is [email protected].