That’s the question asked by John Metcalfe in this silly-but-kind-of-not photojournal in The Atlantic Cities, The Atlantic magazine’s online urban planning spinoff. Metcalfe spends most of the piece rehashing a 13-year-old broadside by a group of Philadelphia artists against that city’s Mural Arts Program for the “amateurish” quality of its paintings. As it turns out, though, Philly’s famous murals have been attracting a fair share of local bile recently, with commentators questioning the city’s annual
$1.5 million investment in the program relative to other priorities. (There’s an interesting comment thread attached to the article linked in the previous sentence that’s worth checking out as well.)
Characteristically, MAP founder and champion Jane Golden has fought back against the bad vibes, and frankly,
$1.5 million $1 million a year in city money for a program that has now produced over 3000 murals and contributed considerably over time to Philly’s identity and reputation strikes me as a pretty ridiculous bargain. But rather than get too deeply into the merits of MAP here, I’m more interested in this broader notion of “bad” public art.
A few years ago, I had this fantasy of starting an anonymous photoblog featuring user submissions of ugly public art. (I guess if I do it now, it won’t be so anonymous!) Think a Regretsy for public art – and judging by the number of my artist friends who are fans of that website on Facebook, I’m guessing there would be an audience for it. Because, let’s face it, not everything we do in this field is drop-dead amazing. And sometimes, the ravages of the elements can take their toll on outdoor artworks over time. In the worst cases, I do believe that public art can actually be (or become) a form of blight in its own right. Having a forum for people to call out the prime offenders encourages us to raise our game, or alternatively, invest in needed funds for maintenance and repair.
But more than that, I sometimes wish we wouldn’t take what we do so damn seriously all the time. Maybe this is coming from someone who’s spent too much time on Roadside America, but I think that by pretending that all artwork is sacred, we unwittingly make failure (acknowledged or not) unacceptable. Of course art is subjective, but that’s precisely the point. Maybe it’s okay to hate a specific piece of public art, if that’s one’s honest response. Maybe we should be encouraging honest responses. Especially to public art, which, unlike a bad performance, is still there the next day and, unlike bad museum or gallery art, is visible to you whether you want it to be or not.
Anyway, don’t worry, I’m not going to start that website. But no guarantees that someone else won’t – Huffington Post has already got us started down this road, and given the success of Regretsy it’s probably only a matter of time. Even if you hate this idea, you might not be able to escape it. Kind of like bad public art.
[UPDATE: in the comments, Philadelphia's Chief Cultural Officer Gary Steuer clarifies that the city's annual investment in MAP is closer to $1 million, not $1.5 million as has been widely reported.]