Artistic License, Three Ways

30 May
Taken in May 2008 by yours truly

You can probably name the building pictured to the left.  These days, that iconic building can be found splashed across travel brochures, worked into the logo on fashion labels, and in statue form in about 85% of U.S. crepe restaurants  (note: fake statistic). We see the Eiffel Tower and we think of the beautiful city of Paris, its romantic atmosphere, its artistic people and, obviously, its food. Yet, the Eiffel Tower wasn’t always seen as a good thing. In fact, when it was put up in preparation for the 1889 Universal Exposition, the people of Paris were appalled. The Exposition was supposed to be a symbol of France’s cultural heritage, political strength and diplomatic role- so what was this ugly tower thing doing in the way? The Parisian people thought that the Tower would detract from favorable French branding. It was derided by critics as an ugly flag pole, a monstrous beast, a waste of materials, etc. But due to contract agreements it remained, and guess what? It was a success. The Tower ended up bringing in great revenue during the Expo, and you definitely do not need to work in business to realize that revenue –> happy officials. And thus the Tower remained on site far beyond what initial plans had outlined, served as a major part of subsequent Expositions, and stands today as a literal monument to taking risks and watching them pay off.

As I read through my daily news roundup a couple of days ago, an article about Italy caught my eye. The headline read: “New Article of Pope John Paul II Sparks Anger in Rome” (read it here:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13475350). The article discusses a new statue that went up in Rome, and reactions of both religious and non-religious figures to the statue’s composition. According to the article, religious leaders are upset that the statue bears little resemblance to the Pope. The people are complaining that the statue is unsightly and will not contribute properly to the city’s cultural reputation (they also think that the statue looks like Mussolini but that is a different issue altogether). In response to the criticism, the sculptor stated that he wasn’t actually trying to make the statue look like the Pope- the point was to illustrate important aspects of the Pope’s character rather than recreate the Pope in bronze. The city has already formed a committee to evaluate the statue and whether it should remain. All of the discussion begs the question: does public art need to fill a certain role to be relevant? And do statues need to resemble their inspiration to be meaningful? 

For the Eiffel Tower, its accused ugliness was pushed aside due to contract terms and the attention it drew was eventually positive and lucrative. It was used as a communications tower once the original 20 year contract for its placement was up, highlighting functionality as a key preservation element. There doesn’t seem to be a real chance that this statue is going to gain the Roman officials any money, and the only use anyone has suggested for it is to shelter homeless people from the cold which, though potentially useful in many ways, isn’t exactly what public officials were going for. So, the statue’s future depends on the intersection of public opinion, religious direction and government decision making.It will be curious to see where this battle goes. As long as the religious leaders believe that the intention was to recreate the likeness of the Pope, they will face a case of mismatch with the artist. Since the religious leaders expected the statue to look like the man who inspired it, they do not see the end result as successful. Yet, since the artist claims he never intended to make the statue look like the man who inspired it, he considers himself successful. And it is doubtful that the artist will suddenly change how he describes his work. Where this argument goes will bring to light the consistent struggle between artistic license, public expectations, religious convention, public ordinances… etc.

One more statue controversy, just for fun. The article about the new papal statue reminded me of another case of statue hullabaloo, courtesy of San Diego. In this case, the cities of Encinitas/Cardiff revealed a surfer statue, much to the dismay of many local surfers (Representative article here: http://www.nctimes.com/news/local/article_65e3e4ce-bd47-513e-98b0-782e7aedbe40.html).  Locals complained that the surfer’s pose was not technically correct, and that the style of the statue was too feminine for a male surfer. This time, an entire category of people was up for discussion. Whereas the papal sculpture questions people’s expectations for portraiture, and the Tower called into debate classical definitions of beauty, the surf sculpture was under attack because it didn’t conform to standards of behavior for an entire class of athletes. Complaints were not about the lack of a singular inspiration, but rather due to the fact that locals thought the statue did not properly respect the art of surfing. The artist defended himself by referring to changed plans, budget limitations etc. and the statue still stands today, probably to the dismay of many in the local surfing community. Yet, since the statue wasn’t intended to represent any one person, critics can’t really claim that the end goal wasn’t met. With the papal statue, the fact that a specific image exists for comparison will make the debate a little trickier. The struggles with these statues highlight conflicts between utility vs. beauty vs. reality vs. artistry is really quite interesting. Representing a category rather than a specific subject provides more artistic freedom, but representing an idea that has never been seen before involves a huge element of risk that could very well not pay off.

As for the Pope… I guess we will see what the Vatican and government officials decide. If they end up ruling that the statue must be removed from public space, I am sure a savvy art collector will pay a fine price to own a piece of controversial art history.

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2 Responses to “Artistic License, Three Ways”

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  1. Will This Be On The Test? | Culture Cookies - September 27, 2013

    […] they don’t care what clothing Egyptians wore, how the Greeks organized their society, or why the Eiffel Tower was built. They can’t be bothered to learn how physics works- they just want the formula that will help […]

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  2. Around the World | Culture Cookies - June 6, 2014

    […] bulk of what happens in any given¬†country is everyday life. Most people aren’t going to the Eiffel Tower or enjoying high tea or taking a narrated tour down a canal. Most people are just going about their […]

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