Jewish World Review March 13, 2002 / 29 Adar, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

A modest proposal | Now and then you're transported to a different time and place. No, I'm not talking about being captured by space aliens out of Roswell, N.M., or anything. It's been a stressful week, but all the stresses have been minor -- more like being nibbled to death by ducks than wiped out by a meteor from outer space, where my head is most of the time anyway.

I do remember at some point -- Tuesday morning? Wednesday afternoon? - walking across a college campus after I gave my little talk there. It was a lovely respite from work. The day was bathed in sunshine, spring was just around the corner, everything had unnaturally slowed, and events conspired to lay out one restful scene after another -- young people studying, a couple playing Frisbee, winter fading ... .

It was like one of those college recruitment films. Idyllic. You could almost hear the music in the background instead of the traffic. It was a nice change from office buildings, cranes, discordant sounds and carbon monoxide.

The mind went into idle, and I was a student back on the Centenary College campus in the South of the 1950s. For a moment everything seemed the same as it was then, including my thoughts. Fats Domino was almost audible in the background. I was struck by how energetic I felt, like a scientist examining his younger self.

For some reason I could feel none of the angst every college student goes through, though I knew I had. Memory can do that when it is kind, screening out the debris and leaving a sweet core. And this campus, too, seemed well cared-for, with its grass tended, sidewalks swept, terraces sloping and clear signs in new, bright, legible letters ... as if the whole place were a color photograph. Things hit you like that sometimes, and you're surprised by the beauty of a little slice of the world.

That's when I began to notice them, like obstructions in your field of vision. They occurred regularly just off the path, like chunks of metal left over from some industrial process. They had shape but no meaning, at least to me. They seemed artifacts of some other age, past or future, but certainly not the present. They were intrusions. They had nothing to do with the here and now, with this golden morning or shining afternoon, whatever it was.

But these metallic accumulations, some dull, some shiny, others rusted, kept popping up across campus, like outsize clockwork thrown aside by a giant hand, scattered over the land like occasional tumors. The sun seemed to go behind a cloud every time one appeared. It was like traversing a visual obstacle course. Suddenly, I was no longer young and striding, but back on a very urban campus. The color had drained from the scene.

That's when I woke up and realized what these things were: They were sculptures.


But what kind? Student projects? Donations? Leftovers? First tries that didn't make the final cut? Things put on display out of a sense of obligation, the way you put a loved child's pictures up on the fridge?

But these things weren't lovable. Or temporary. They were made to last and last and, alas, last.

The sun-starved grass would wither under them over the years, along with the souls of passersby.

As still another rusting pile of abandoned auto mufflers appeared across the way -- or was it a gigantic toaster? -- it inspired only one reaction: Why? To what end? Why do we do this? Is there some kind of law that says we have to disfigure our public spaces, and ruin a perfectly good walk?

Well, yes, there is.

Certain cities have passed laws requiring that developers who want public funds for their projects have to set aside 1 percent of their budget for Public Art.

The law doesn't say what kind of art it has to be -- good, bad or indifferent. Classical, mod, pop or outre. Doubtless the usual group of experts is appointed to certify it as capital-A Art. After that, there may be no way of removing the stuff short of an earthquake. For the first time, I thought of the New Madrid fault line as a blessing. PB

The other day, according to a news item out of Philadelphia, a developer there had objected to the requirement that he spend his 1 percent on art. It seems he had already dedicated the pier adjoining his riverside project as a public park, and he didn't want to scatter clumps of duly certified Public Art around his project.

Sounds reasonable. So naturally the developer's request was opposed. Because, according to somebody with the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and arts police, granting this one guy a waiver would set a precedent that might affect ``the rest of the country.'' My heart leapt in hope.

It's not the requirement that a certain percentage of public investment be set aside for public art that troubles. It seems only fair -- an act of stewardship for the future. Just look at the WPA buildings that still ornament small towns across America, a reminder that public art can be both useful and assuring, utilitarian and comely, elevated and elevating.

By all means, save public art, especially from those in charge of deciding what it is. But how? Maybe all it would take is one simple requirement. Call it, if you please, Greenberg's Law:

Any piece of art bought or erected by the public must be superior to the bare, beautiful, light-filled space it would occupy.

That's a high standard. But holding to it would (a) reduce the amount of all the oh-so-advanced litter that now clutters our public spaces, (b) help us appreciate the simple beauty of what it would replace, and (c) raise artistic standards immensely.

That's where my walk across campus led: to a modest proposal.

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