Should Art Be Everywhere?


Art Image

The organizers of Art Everywhere US have plans to place classic American art on billboards, bus stop kiosks, and subway station walls. With financial support from some of the largest outdoor advertising agencies, the campaign will run through the month of August. And we’re invited to help make the selections.

Five of America’s outstanding museums, the Arts Institute of Chicago included, have singled out 100 important works of American art and through a voting process that will continue through May 7, the list of works to be displayed will be cut in half. The list includes works by artists, photographers, and a small number of decorative artists; some of the art and artists will be recognizable to many while others are lesser known.

What follows is an e-mail exchange between me (MC) and an art historian friend (AHF). We discuss a number of the stated or implied aims of the project: to offer a new round of discussion about what pieces belong on the list of “classic American art”; to increase museum attendance by bringing the museum into the street; and to contribute to the visual  literacy of the public. 

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MC: Part of me is pleased with this project and its professed goals, especially the desire to create aesthetic pleasure in the viewers. Some of my favorite paintings, like Peter Blume’s surrealistic The Rock and George Tooker’s ominous The Subway (perfect for an underground stop) are on the list. Also included are some works like Thomas Eakins’s The Wrestlers. I’m familiar with Eakins but did not know this work. Other works – like Millard Sheets’ Angel’s Flight – are delightful discoveries. I would like more people to be familiar with these works and to seek out other works by the same artist, thus adding to their cultural capital. The collection does not always provide comfort or escape: Catherine Opie’s Self Portrait: Cutting (the artist’s photograph of her lacerated back) is one such work, though I don’t imagine this one making the cut, so to speak.

But I’m also troubled by the project. In the organization’s attempt to make our citizens aware of how American history can be told through the classic art that it has produced, I’m concerned that the approach will only add to the clutter in our mass-mediated, super-saturated visual environment. Will the speeding traveler on I-88 in Western Illinois be mindful of a large billboard image of Charles DeMuth’s My Egypt (a geometric rendering of an iconic grain elevator) or will they see it as an ad for DeKalb Seed Corn? Will the bus rider go home to inquire about the source of Thomas Hart Benton’s Poker Night which occupies a place on the advertising panel next to a Preparation H ad? Will the subway rider, waiting briefly for the next train, give a yawn of recognition when standing face-to-face with Warhol’s overly-familiar Warhol Campbell’s Soup Can? Understanding art demands more attention than these fleeting encounters will provide.

AHF:  It is interesting to me that the pieces that you single out (Blume, Tooker, Eakins, Sheets, Benton, and even Opie) — with a few exceptions– are in a figurative, realist tradition. In a sense, I share your concern about this project negating a more rigorous contemplation that the (relatively) private space of the museum affords. However, this effect seems to be exacerbated not by the billboard placement itself, but by the lack of innovation or experimentation by the artists included. My worry is not that the traveler on I-88 would mistake DeMuth for an advertisement; after all, DeKalb Seed Corn would never employ such modernist abstraction. In this sense, DeMuth provides a respite from the homogeneity and literalness of commercial art. And yet, for this very reason, his inclusion on the final list seems quite doubtful, if the court of popular opinion holds sway. One hundred years after the Armory Exhibition and the radical upheavals to artistic conventions it helped usher in, many Americans are still uncomfortable with abstraction, never mind some of the more radical ideological challenges posed by art of the past few decades. Even Catherine Opie, with her butch lesbian and S&M signifiers, might fail to shock in this context; the human form on a billboard is simply too expected. This project, unfortunately, has the potential to merely confirm the public’s appetite for figuration–art that one can “relate to.”

Despite reproducing artworks everywhere, to me the Art Everywhere US somewhat perversely reifies the primacy of the singular art object. The project functions as an advertisement for the experience of seeing the artwork in person. The project seems to at once acknowledge, but ultimately disguise, the reality of mediation that is a cultural condition of the 21st century, by reasserting the supremacy of the original.

MC: Thanks…you’ve helped me to better understand my preferences. The collaborators of the five museums that have come up with a list that may well be restricted by their own sense of what the public accepts as “art.” Anyone interested in voting has to work within the limitations imposed by the gatekeepers. Their options tilt heavily toward the figurative but if you look some abstractions more non-referential than DeMuth’s are included. I might have chosen an abstract work by Jackson Pollock or a Mark Rothko that I liked better than the ones offered. In retrospect, I think Roy Lichtenstein’s abstract Little Big Picture would look terrific on a billboard. But you’re right about the narrow range.  Abstract sculpture, of the kind produced by Louise Nevelson, was not even offered as a choice. Indeed the only three dimensional piece is a Frank Lloyd Wright stained-glass window. So the project is an interesting exercise in the way that the list of “classic American paintings” gets made and perpetuated.

I’ll agree with you that an agribusiness would not likely choose a work of art to advertise its product. Nevertheless, while DeMuth’s My Egypt might be categorized as a work of abstraction, it still is recognizable as a treatment of a grain elevator; we need no human figure in the frame to help us sort it out. The same can’t be said about Willem De Kooning’s Montauk Highway, another choice for the voters and one likely to be rejected if what you say about our unease with abstraction is true.

Should I read your last comment as an endorsement of the project? You seem to be saying that the public, long familiar with the reproduction of original art works — and with the occasional parody — will be impelled to have a “pure” experience by seeking out and standing reverentially in front of the original, because that original is given an aura by its placement in a quiet and properly lit museum setting. Or to put it another way, the public implicitly understands that seeing Grant Wood’s American Gothic plastered on a bus stop kiosk is no substitute for seeing the original under what the museum considers optimum conditions. And thus, some of those bus riders will enter the museum, perhaps for the very first time. And that’s not a bad thing.

AHF: Looking through the selections with a bit more scrutiny, I do see that there is somewhat more diversity in terms of movements and styles than my previous response had acknowledged. I think you are right that it is an interesting experiment in canon formation, if nothing else. Personally, I think the ones that might be the most successful are those that are about the nature of representation somehow. Lichtenstein’s “Little Big Painting” makes sense to me not because it would be aesthetically pleasing, but because it tells us something about the nature of flatness and would remind the viewer of the very support (first the canvas, then the billboard) upon which it is painted. For this very reason, either of the two Ed Ruscha pieces (and it is interesting that he is included twice) direct the viewer to the notions of artifice and the facade.  Likewise, Margaret Bourke-White’s “World’s Highest Standard of Living” (1937) would be incredibly timely in our current condition of income inequality, but more interestingly, it indicts the billboard as an agent of fantasy. John Baldessari’s “Wrong” (1966-68) would also be refreshing as a systematic violation of compositional principles and a refusal of the myth of “skill” as a pretense for art making. Perhaps it is demanding too much of the project that it takes itself as a subject matter, or that it offers a form of critique, but wouldn’t it be nice if it did?

I didn’t exactly mean by previous comment as an endorsement, per se. There have been so many challenges to the idea of the singular, sacred art object during the past several decades that I see art on  billboards as a somewhat regressive attempt to recuperate the primacy of the “pure” experience of viewership within the confines of the official institutions of high culture. In other words, the project fails to grapple with these challenges, even while the form of the billboard presents ample opportunity to do something unexpected. While it is certainly hard to fault museums for attempting to boost support or attendance, this seems like a rather bald attempt at “democratizing” art, while doing nothing to address the actual inequalities in access to the very thing it putatively offers.

MC: It seems that you have defined the successful object (presumably one that you would vote for) as one that would shake up viewers’ somewhat narrow notions of what art is and what art tries to do. I think I share your objective here. Clearly Wrong, the grainy, amateurish photo by Baldessari will strike most viewers as being unworthy of inclusion because it lacks the requisite technical skills that we associate with the honored art piece. Ed Ruscha’s stylized depictions of the iconic Hollywood sign will probably be rejected by the voters because he simply seems to be recycling someone else’s image. What would it take to get the commuter to see a Ruscha piece as a case study in “artifice and façade”? Or the eager voter-participant to see the implied criticism of the whole advertising enterprise in the Bourke-White photograph? A leap to this higher level of understanding requires some kind of human intervention, one that an art historian can provide.

You hit a big nail on the head in your comment about the likely gap between the intention of the planners and the ultimate result of their desire to saturate our environment with great American art. If part of their goal is to turn subway riders into museum goers, then the means does seem insufficient. Steep ticket prices, limited hours of access and the relative geographical remoteness of the museum may inhibit those who catch the fever. Were the Art Institute of Chicago philanthropists who founded and funded the institution at the end of the 19th century successful in their desire to not only democratize art but also to civilize immigrant, working-class urban dwellers? What could they offer – other than free Sunday admission – to get the steelworker or file clerk to enter a temple of art?

Is a Winslow Homer on a billboard or a Chuck Close on a subway station wall like a yellow ribbon tied on a tree – a weak symbolic gesture that does little to reduce the gap between the citizen and the soldier or the artist? Margaret Bourke-White’s truth-telling photograph World’s Greatest Standard of Living reveals another example of the way the stories that we tell about ourselves – even the narratives embodied in “classic American art” – obscure living realities. 

AHF: You are right about the “human intervention” necessary in getting someone to recognize the value of Baldessari or Ruscha. Such an appreciation does not come naturally, but is the product of some level of erudition, reflection, or visual literacy. And as we know too well, unfortunately, arts education–both in K-12 and higher education–has come to be seen as a frivolity, with shifting priorities privileging Common Core standards and STEM disciplines. President Obama’s “off the cuff” remark about the potential to make more money in manufacturing than by studying art history points to the fact that many, including our commander-in-chief, do not see the value in being able to “read” a piece of difficult art. While his apology pointed to the fact that art provided profound enjoyment in his own life, he did not necessarily extend this logic to suggest that the body politic might benefit from being fluent in the language of images.

Admittedly, the billboard project does not have the potential or the aim to provide such training. Besides, the notion of the “civilizing” powers of the fine arts seems exhausted and not entirely germane for 21st century. Rather than art providing mere uplift, I would contend that the value of arts education extends beyond the museum to encompass being able to decipher advertisements, political campaigns, and simply being a well-informed global citizen. If the billboard project is not in a position to provide this, then what does it do, besides act as a confirmation of public taste? I might argue that it is even more nefarious, insofar as it also placates concerns about the loss of visual literacy or traditional humanistic inquiry. By placing art into the public square, so to speak, it distracts the public from the gutting of art funding, education, and programs. It makes the arts visible, but nevertheless circumscribes the idea of “art” as the province of elite cultural institutions.

The term you use, “symbolic gesture,” seems wholly appropriate to me. The more I think about it, Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph is my choice for an image to be monumentalized on a billboard. While it can function quite independently as a striking, powerful image, it is also able to prompt the savvy consumer of images reflect on the ways in which inequality–in any number of forms, be it economic, educational, or artistic–is embedded as part of the American cultural condition.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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