The other night I got into an interesting conversation with another family member who might be taken as a pretty good example of the average Chattanoogan: born-again Christian, a Union man, not a big reader or college grad but with a good mind, father and grandad who raised two kids, and then got married again and adopted a little girl. He asked me how the art biz is going, or some such usual polite question, and somehow we got on the subject of my having served on a committee for public art in Chattanooga a year or two ago, and how surprisingly hard it had been.
I got picked for the committee because I had been president of Olde Towne Brainerd Neighborhood Association, plus I purport to be an artist. Being a sort of local Neighborhood Organizer turned out to be rather a downer in the end, because it became inevitably inmeshed in local politics, and that turns out to be nasty business, but this was fun. It involved attending several meetings with numerous other committee members and a nice lady who worked for Allied Arts of Chattanooga which organization I think partly funded the proposed sculptures. And I think part of the money, which was at least as much I have ever made in any one year as an artist on my own, also came from the state and the city. We were shown portfolios of about a dozen sculptors and sculpture groups from across the country. Hardly any of them followed all the rules for submission; we got rid of several of them because they didn’t submit any work that was even remotely suitable.
The sculptures were supposed to convey something about diversity, living together, and something else which I have forgotten, but you get the idea. Oh, yes, it was Community and Diversity. All very politically correct and uplifting in a corporate sort of way, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I really tried to get into the spirit and all. Some work submitted was very beautiful, and I would have liked to get it for my own sculpture garden if I had one: for instance, a series of white marble twisted tentacles which brought to mind a bunch of albino Cthulus being tortured. I thought they were actually really neat in a Goth sort of way, but didn’t think they would look so good in front of the Brainerd tunnels. Neither would the 50-foot-high steel outline of a nude woman whose enormous perky breasts instantly brought to mind Brainerd’s beloved Diamonds and Lace strip club. And we silently passed on the stone phallic structure whose creator had thoughtfully supplied Photoshopped images of how his work would appear in front of the enormous tunnels; the 5-foot statue looked, well, a bit inadequate even on top of its pedestal.
Later I learned that one of the more pleasing sculptures was by a Chattanooga artist I’ve met, but we didn’t know the artists’ names at the time. Part of our difficulty in choosing was finding two sculptures which looked good together, although looking back I wonder why we thought that mattered. The whole experience reminds me a bit of my one experience serving on a trial jury: the fear of doing the wrong thing, making the wrong decision.
I admit I came to the committee meetings with an agenda: to veto any sculptures which resembled a pile of steel girders. These hideous civic sculptures are everywhere, in every city, apparently chosen by art committees like the one I served with, but why? I have a theory: because they are abstract, they can’t really offend anyone. They are Big, and that is Good. They are perfectly meaningless, at least they are perceived to be, although to my eye, they represent a sort of unconscious symbolic representation of the destruction of Western culture. I know, I’m being a touch paranoid. But look at them! I know you’ve seen them! They’re everywhere, and to me they resemble nothing so much as the remains of a skyscraper, twisted and thrown to the ground by some enormous Destructor. I succeeded in stopping the inevitable desire of some committee members to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a pile of bent steel girders. What we got may not have been a whole lot better, being flat,abstract, and made of painted steel, but they at least addressed the themes, and were colorful and uplifting and maybe fun: Rolling Dancing Moons, by Reven Marie Swanson, and Winds of Change, by Cecilia Lueza. Plus the artists were women. Woo hoo!
After listening to my whiney complaints about the state of public art in Chattanooga, the relative asked me what kind of sculptures I did like. I immediately mentioned Daud Akhriev’s bronze statues The Four Seasons at the Market Street Bridge in downtown Chattanooga. Here one of the statues, which is admittedly, nude, but IMHO about as tasteful as a nude statue can get:
When I said that the atmosphere in the room immediately went down to a few degrees above freezing. The family member was very disapproving of the statues, not quite shocked, but definitely he felt that nudity in art, no matter how high-flown, is a no-no in public places. “But they’re very tasteful, very beautiful, very well done,” I disagreed mildly. “How do you explain it to children?” he asked. He had been very embarrassed recently when he and his wife took their very young daughter to the Hunter and there was a nude male statue with a penis for crying out loud, right in front of the museum for all to see.
I’ve been in front of the Hunter several times in the last year and I can’t even remember a nude statue of a man or a penis, but then maybe I’m just completely calloused. There have been a number of letters to the editor in the local paper which disapproved of Akhriev’s nude statues, one of them written by a little girl who found herself offended by their sleaziness. Of course, the standard answer among Chattanooga’s intelligentsia (yes, they’re here, I know them! It’s possible someof them have even been to my house!) is that Chattanooga is too conservative and full of fundamentalists and that’s why the town has its head thrust up its bum. But I’m not sure if there is a connection between prudery and the prude’s politics or even religion. Now, the family member in question is very conservative socially, but I don’t have a clue how he votes, and I wouldn’t dream of asking him, but if I had to guess, I would say maybe he’s a Democrat, since he’s a union guy. But I could be wrong. Certainly naked statues would have shocked a lot of folks I grew up with in Pikeville, but my parents had lots of art books with nudity from the time I was very small, and no one thought anything of it, and I can’t remember noticing it very much.
My parents were conservative politically at that time, although they became much more liberal later, but they stayed pretty puritanical about sex; yet nudity in art didn’t bother them. And we went to the Church of Christ every Sunday. I’ve become somewhat more conservative politically in the last 10 years, but naked statues don’t bother me and never have. My husband is more conservative politically than I am, and he isn’t bothered by nude statues either. I remember fondly being in Europe right after I graduated from college and there were nude statues everywhere, including bronze statues of naked little Putti urinating water into public fountains, right there in downtown Rome, which I admit did shock me a little and made me giggle, but I was only seventeen.
Naked lady statues hardly seemed worth raising an eyebrow over, though. Even at the Hunter in the 60’s there were marble statues of pretty Sylphs with a stray boob slipping out of their nighties, which everyone seemed to be wearing in Classical art. And in Rome, Michelangelo’s naked women looked like men with bad implants, and I’ve read since that his models were men, so they could sit right there and not bother anyone. Is it just a level of sophistication, cultural urbanization? I find myself thinking that Chattanooga is headed for a rude cultural awakening, maybe having to do with its love for representational, traditional art. You just can’t have realistic art without eventually having nekkid statues to contend with. Otherwise, you just have Thomas Kinkaide.
Chattanooga has had quite a few Thomas Kinkaide galleries, and I bet he’s still very popular in spite of his recent downfall. The galleries used to hire local artists, most of them women, to dab paint on Kinkaide prints to turn them into one-if-a-kind “originals,” and I went to the mall once to check out a job and found it was for that. I needed the money but I wouldn’t do it. I have some standards, even if I have painted winged kitties and my son as a zombie.