Saturday, September 10, 2011

Civic Art: Mario Chiodo's "Remember Them"

Civic art was important to the general public from the Renaissance through the 1920s. Perhaps the last great example was Daniel Chester French's statue for the Lincoln memorial, which was a great popular success because it revealed Lincoln's humanity so clearly.

Since then, we have had many decades of modernist public art - abstract, pop, conceptual. Some tries so hard to be playful that it ends up being trivial, and some tries so hard to be intellectual that it ends up being art theory rather than art.

But now there seems to be a revival of the classical humanistic tradition of civic art. One example is the new Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, DC, though it has been criticized for not expressing King's character and instead making him look too harsh.

A more successful example is Mario Chiodo's "Remember Them," unveiled last week in Oakland, California's Uptown neighborhood, which was semi-abandoned a decade or two ago but now is being redeveloped with neo-traditional apartment buildings. It is good to see this neo-traditional art joining the sort of neo-traditional urbanism that has been challenging modernism for decades.

The project is not yet complete, but it will ultimately include four massive bronze pieces with sculptures of twenty-five people whom the sculptor chose because they represent ideals such as sacrifice and courage.

Many of them are excellent character studies, such as this face of Gandhi.

But the idealism of the sculptures do not prevent neighborhood children from enjoying them, as you can see in this picture of two girls climbing and playing between Franklin Roosevelt and the praying Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

The San Francisco Chronicle had a story about the unveiling that was generally favorable but that also quoted a member of Oakland's modernist art scene who said: "The art community in Oakland is really thriving right now. It's an up and coming part of the arts scene. I'm struck by how out of tune this seems. ... It's not an of-the-moment piece." This typical modernist line does not care at all about the quality of the art and only cares about whether it is trendy and "of our time."

A letter to the editor responded: "I have seen the pieces. ... They strengthen my belief in humanity. They give me hope and inspire me when these days listening to or reading the news can be depressing. Out of tune? Not with me. These pieces are powerful and passionate. They will speak to a wide range of people, which cannot be said for some of the of-the-moment art."

If we want to recapture the impact on public life that the best civic art had from the Renaissance through the early twentieth century, we need pieces that move and inspire a wide range of people, not pieces that appeal to a small clique of terminally hip modernists.

Judging from the large crowd of local people who were admiring these sculptures, they are doing exactly that.

One person near me pointed at one of the sculptures and said to a friend, "That looks like Maya Angelou." I didn't understand her at first, and when I realized what she meant, I told her, "I thought you said 'It looks like a Michelangelo.'" After thinking for a moment, her friend answered, "You know, in some ways it does look like a Michelangelo."


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