The artspeak was much in evidence at the unveiling of the People Project a couple of weeks ago in Grand Center. Artists and arts administrators and politicians and corporate and civic leaders were in attendance, all smiling booster smiles at the artspeak catchphrases: "Art is a universal language." "Art is for everyone." The People Project would "put art where it belongs -- in daily life," proclaimed Hizzoner, Clarence Harmon. "Let the artist's imagination run wild," heralded Porter Arneill of the Regional Arts Commission (RAC), who's been charged with spearheading St. Louis' answer to the cows and pigs and moose and fish and lizards appearing in other urban centers. A representative from Emerson Electric touted the "credibility and integrity" of the effort, words that are good for christening all sorts of endeavors, including those that are arts-related. He then backed up those words by committing Emerson to sponsoring a people figure (at a bargain rate of $4,000 per) in all 12 counties where the project is slated to appear next April.
It was a sunny day, and those in attendance were showing their sunniest dispositions. Seven people figures were unveiled, sculpted by nine artists. Low expectations -- most of the local media skewered the People Project when it was announced last May -- undoubtedly lent to the appreciation of the art. However, as each piece was unveiled, the crowd didn't respond with the clichéd gasps of praise or shouts of invective. Rather, there was polite applause and then sincere expressions of admiration made to the individual artists by those arts advocates who lingered for cookies and chatter after the pitch for People Project sponsors had concluded.
The artists were entirely deserving of praise. They'd managed to take a ludicrous idea and transform it into appealing art -- inventive, curious, imaginative objects that could lend some distinction to wherever they might reside next summer. Raphael DiLuzio, who constructed "I Wanna Be a Cowboy" -- a fanciful Minotaur figure that serves as a clever response to the Cows on Parade phenomenon that precipitated the People Project and all the pigs and lizards and moose elsewhere -- says he was skeptical of the idea as well but came to see it as unique, a challenge. A cow, he observes, offers an artist a blank canvas, but "because of the literalness of the human figure," the artist struggles "to overcome the peopleness of the thing."
Phil Robinson, whose "Whose Turn?" is a slightly torqued figure covered with conflicting directional arrows, says he was also dubious. His first thought was "That's just like St. Louis," but then he came to think, "It could be fun -- no reason to have high-minded notions of art." He says he figured he now had the chance to finally make some art "your grandmother could appreciate." Robinson, as is his creative wont, has insinuated a bit of unnerving subtext into the work, however. The figure is "inspired by antihero Lee Harvey Oswald," caught in the posture of shock and pain as he's gunned down by Jack Ruby. How that concept might play with the public is anybody's guess. Yet it is Robinson's approach that keeps the work that far removed from falling into kitsch.
Keith Westbrook was even more bold in his avoidance of the tame. "Modern Day Slave" is an African-American male figure in suit and tie -- and shackles. The political bite of the work, at least this day, was assuaged, as those who had come to support whatever was unveiled championed whatever they saw, offering up a few more apt artspeak words -- "challenging," "thought-provoking" -- for the young artist to hear, thereby deflecting any suggestion that Westbrook's commentary might actually have some fundamental relevance to anyone's real life. Art, thank goodness, needn't be taken that seriously. Enterprises such as the People Project keep us all assured of that.
The People Project -- as RAC and FOCUS St. Louis and the People Project steering committee and the People Project oversight committee and the People Project art/design committee and all the rest who've gotten on board constantly assert -- is about fun, dammit! This is reiterated by representatives of RAC and FOCUS during a telephone Q&A about a week after the unveiling. A parsing of some of the People Project's media literature meets with the general response that arts administrators just want to have fun.
In the pursuit of fun, the People Project boosters avoid any word that smacks of seriousness or might make the public-art project sound too much like art. These are "people figures" rather than "sculptures" because, says Arneill, "What we learned is that when we used 'sculpture,' the general public -- our experience has been -- that became 'statue.' And when it became 'statue,' it became 'an old bronze guy sitting on a horse.' And that's certainly not what we're doing, so that's why we avoid the term 'sculpture.' The general public, from my experience, doesn't understand that word very well."
To further appease the culturally challenged, there is no call-for-artists for the People Project but a call-for-creative-agents. Arneill explains, "Anybody can submit proposals. What I have found in my experience is if I say 'artist,' a lot of people don't consider themselves to be artists. So that's why we're using the term 'creative agent,' to try and convey to people that if they don't see themselves as an artist, they could be a creative agent."
Maybe not too many people consider themselves to be artists -- and, often, for good reason -- but who thinks of him- or herself as a creative agent? "Maybe we'll invent some," Arneill quips.
In order to avoid offending a public that has such trouble with words like "artist" and "sculpture," the People Project has set up committees to make sure nothing in bad taste appears, such as when filmmaker David Lynch tried to exhibit a sculpture of a slaughtered cow on the streets of New York this summer. But when questioned about these oversight procedures, the administrators sound confused about their own guidelines.
In going over the process, everyone begins on the same page: The creative agents submit proposals to the People Project art/design committee, which reviews and approves them. These proposals are placed in a big portfolio for potential sponsors to choose from, but first those sponsors must be approved, as well, by the People Project oversight committee.
No, no, no, cry the arts administrators. But it states right here, "The People Project Oversight Committee reserves the right to approve applications for sponsorship." "Are you reading from the RFT?" queries RAC executive director Jill McGuire.
No, this comes from the People Project media packet, on the page where sponsorship opportunities are outlined.
"The reason for approving the application for sponsorship," McGuire says, "is to make sure that there is not going to be a sponsor that would do something out of the ordinary."
In other words, is this a way to keep the Ku Klux Klan from pitching in? "Yeah," McGuire acknowledges. "I guess you could say that's probably one of the reasons."
So, the approved sponsor then chooses from the approved creative agents' proposals, selects one people figure (or more, if the sponsor is looking for a bargain -- $5,000 each for one to four figures, $4,500 for five to nine, $4,000 for 10 or more) and forks over the five grand, and the piece is constructed, exhibited and then sent to auction, maybe: "The People Project Oversight Committee will decide which people figures will be suitable for auctioning."
"Where are you reading that?" asks Arneill, puzzled.
Again, it comes from the description of People Project sponsorship opportunities supplied by the People Project.
Christine Chadwick of FOCUS St. Louis helps out this time: "Some of (the figures) will probably be weathered. Some of them might not be suitable for auction, so that's just our discretion."
Finally, there's that word "auction." Sure, all those cows and pigs and lizards got auctioned off to raise money for art programs and charities in other cities, but doesn't the word have certain sinister associations when used in connection with the "auctioning" of people, especially in St. Louis?
There's dead silence. Then Arneill responds: "It didn't strike us, to be honest with you. You were at the press conference. You saw the uniqueness of it. I hear what you're saying, but, frankly, that hasn't come up as an issue."
"When we go to auction," McGuire asserts, "it's not going to have that kind of connotation at all. It will be very fun."
Whenever people insist on the fun they are having, or will have, there's the suspicion that this is a party to avoid. When, and if, the People Project takes to the streets of the region next April, the fad of cows and moose and pigs and Snoopys (in St. Paul) will have passed. St. Louis, again, will be known for being a day late and a dollar short, with a dumb idea.
It must be acknowledged that the fine works on display at the People Project unveiling did not go through the selection process. They were made without sponsors, without committee approval, without the five grand in hand that signifies the creative green light. Would a piece such as "Modern Day Slave" receive sponsorship? Would it see the light of day?
In the realm of public art, there is the phrase "plop art," referring to art that gets dropped onto the public thoroughfare as from a tall cow's behind. The art appears because arts administrators think it is good for people, which gives in to the notion that art is supposed to be good for people, which becomes, then, the purpose of art.
In this instance, the People Project is meant to bind the region. "It's another way of saying, 'This is a region,' says McGuire. "It's a noncompetitive, fun way to really talk about regionalism."
Since when did art have to take on that duty?
It did about the same time art became the activity that happened when some outsider came into the grade-school classroom, presented "fun" projects for a few weeks and then went away. Art became extracurricular, a respite, nothing serious.
People (and the People Project) need to know better. And maybe they will, if some artists (rather than creative agents) come along with the tools of subversion, placing a few guerilla people on the streets to spoil, or enliven, the party.