Bad Public Art Finds Audience in Chicago

by Art Fag City on October 2, 2009 · 33 comments Newswire

POST BY PADDY JOHNSONart fag city, God Bless America, J. Seward Johnson Jr.
J. Seward Johnson Jr., God Bless America, 2009

A giant sculpture depicting the pair of farmers in Grant Wood’s America Gothic finds great popularity amongst the Chicago general public, reports the city’s Tribune. Located on Michigan Avenue just north of the Chicago River, the rub of J. Seward Johnson Jr.’s 25 foot tall work titled God Bless America, according the paper, is that it isn’t well liked by “cognoscenti.” This stands in contrast to another recent Chicago public art commission, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate. “You would be hard pressed to find someone in the art world who doesn’t think that it’s a terrific object as art, and then it’s beloved by the public as well,” Elizabeth Kelley, director of the city’s Public Art Program told the Chicago Tribune. “But that’s a rare recipe for a large-scale work that has no sentimental or historic attachment to it.”

Clearly, the world needs more Jeff Koons puppies — particularly if the only public art alternative is God Bless America. At the risk of stating the obvious, the American Gothic sculpture isn’t any good, and being popular doesn’t make it any better. Cigarettes and candy are well liked too, it doesn’t mean they’re good for you.

The paper cites a number of arguments for the sculpture, each holding up about as well as Camel advertisements claiming the “energizing” effects of their tobacco. A few examples:

  • It brings art into [people’s] daily lives. And so will a good public sculpture. This is not an argument for “God Bless America,” but public sculpture in general.
  • I never drive by it when [sic] someone isn’t taking a picture of it. People take pictures of a lot of things — Times Square’s Naked Cowboy for example — that isn’t evidence of its value, merely its spectacle.  
  • It speaks to Midwesterners, especially the farmer aspect of it. The mere facts that farmers are depicted in the sculpture and farms are a prominent fixture in Midwest life only signal an appropriateness of subject matter. If someone gives you a gift they know matches your interests because it replicates what you already own, is it useful or needless?
  • It encourages people to go to the museum because the image is so iconic. To my mind, this is the only argument that has any merit, though it seems just as likely to leave people thinking they don’t have to visit the museum any more because they see the take-off every day. Frankly, I’d be surprised if the Chicago Art Institute’s visitor numbers were effected at all by the presence of the sculpture. Such numbers would suggest that an engagement in the equivalent of a wax figure would overcome the intimidation many feel towards art.

Via:@giovannigf

Related: VVork’s essay on Turbo-Sculpture.

  • http://mtaa.net twhid

    I remember standing in front of American Gothic (which is in Chicago’s Art Institute) years ago and finding it funny that the guy in front of me was trying to explain to his friend that this was *the* painting.

    The image was so iconic to this guy that he couldn’t grok the fact that he was actually looking at the original.

    +++

    The best reason for the sculpture: we finally know what their shoes look like.

  • http://mtaa.net twhid

    I remember standing in front of American Gothic (which is in Chicago’s Art Institute) years ago and finding it funny that the guy in front of me was trying to explain to his friend that this was *the* painting.

    The image was so iconic to this guy that he couldn’t grok the fact that he was actually looking at the original.

    +++

    The best reason for the sculpture: we finally know what their shoes look like.

  • http://mtaa.net twhid

    I remember standing in front of American Gothic (which is in Chicago’s Art Institute) years ago and finding it funny that the guy in front of me was trying to explain to his friend that this was *the* painting.

    The image was so iconic to this guy that he couldn’t grok the fact that he was actually looking at the original.

    +++

    The best reason for the sculpture: we finally know what their shoes look like.

  • http://www.joannemattera.blogspot.com Joanne Mattera

    Right, the shoes. And you can’t tell from the painting just how tall they actually are . . .

  • http://www.joannemattera.blogspot.com Joanne Mattera

    Right, the shoes. And you can’t tell from the painting just how tall they actually are . . .

  • http://www.joannemattera.blogspot.com Joanne Mattera

    Right, the shoes. And you can’t tell from the painting just how tall they actually are . . .

  • http://mtaa.net twhid

    …and the sculpture shows that, strangely, they were gigantic.

  • http://mtaa.net twhid

    …and the sculpture shows that, strangely, they were gigantic.

  • http://www.independent-collectors.com tommi

    Now someone needs to commission a huge mural to cover the ugly-ish building in the back to resemble the background from the painting …

  • http://www.independent-collectors.com tommi

    Now someone needs to commission a huge mural to cover the ugly-ish building in the back to resemble the background from the painting …

  • http://www.independent-collectors.com tommi

    Now someone needs to commission a huge mural to cover the ugly-ish building in the back to resemble the background from the painting …

  • http://Www.badatsports.com Richard Holland

    I think it’s great! We needed a monument to bad taste.

  • http://Www.badatsports.com Richard Holland

    I think it’s great! We needed a monument to bad taste.

  • http://cincy-artsnob.blogspot.com/ Kathy Stockman

    It looks like Chicago and members of the American art world are getting nervous now about the prospect of getting the Olympic nod.

    What the hell are we gonna do when the rest of the world sees this as us? Will contemporary American art force us to hand over the cradle of the artworld we’ve cherished since…oh…about the time Grant Wood’s iconic painting was unveiled?

    If Chicago gets the Olympics is there a possibility that American Gothic could bookend the American Modernism and Postmodernism?

  • http://cincy-artsnob.blogspot.com/ Kathy Stockman

    It looks like Chicago and members of the American art world are getting nervous now about the prospect of getting the Olympic nod.

    What the hell are we gonna do when the rest of the world sees this as us? Will contemporary American art force us to hand over the cradle of the artworld we’ve cherished since…oh…about the time Grant Wood’s iconic painting was unveiled?

    If Chicago gets the Olympics is there a possibility that American Gothic could bookend the American Modernism and Postmodernism?

  • http://cincy-artsnob.blogspot.com/ Kathy Stockman

    It looks like Chicago and members of the American art world are getting nervous now about the prospect of getting the Olympic nod.

    What the hell are we gonna do when the rest of the world sees this as us? Will contemporary American art force us to hand over the cradle of the artworld we’ve cherished since…oh…about the time Grant Wood’s iconic painting was unveiled?

    If Chicago gets the Olympics is there a possibility that American Gothic could bookend the American Modernism and Postmodernism?

  • http://cincy-artsnob.blogspot.com/ Kathy Stockman

    It looks like Chicago and members of the American art world are getting nervous now about the prospect of getting the Olympic nod.

    What the hell are we gonna do when the rest of the world sees this as us? Will contemporary American art force us to hand over the cradle of the artworld we’ve cherished since…oh…about the time Grant Wood’s iconic painting was unveiled?

    If Chicago gets the Olympics is there a possibility that American Gothic could bookend the American Modernism and Postmodernism?

  • http://www.unutterable.org Giovanni

    I love the way you broke down the claims and demolished them.

    The whole thing reminds me of the Rocky Balboa statue debate in Philadelphia: http://www.pophistorydig.com/?p=2701

  • http://www.unutterable.org Giovanni

    I love the way you broke down the claims and demolished them.

    The whole thing reminds me of the Rocky Balboa statue debate in Philadelphia: http://www.pophistorydig.com/?p=2701

  • http://www.unutterable.org Giovanni

    I love the way you broke down the claims and demolished them.

    The whole thing reminds me of the Rocky Balboa statue debate in Philadelphia: http://www.pophistorydig.com/?p=2701

  • http://www.unutterable.org Giovanni

    I love the way you broke down the claims and demolished them.

    The whole thing reminds me of the Rocky Balboa statue debate in Philadelphia: http://www.pophistorydig.com/?p=2701

  • greg.org

    the Equitable bldg by SOM. Actually, maybe a giant green screen so tourists can Photoshop their own backgrounds in

  • greg.org

    the Equitable bldg by SOM. Actually, maybe a giant green screen so tourists can Photoshop their own backgrounds in

  • greg.org

    the Equitable bldg by SOM. Actually, maybe a giant green screen so tourists can Photoshop their own backgrounds in

  • http://nessusshirtco.blogspot.com/1971/04/blog-post.html beebe

    I lived in Chicago for ten years–and I consider it my adopted hometown and have a great affection for it–but the last 10-15 years there has been one long unbroken fugue of bad public art. It started with the fiberglass cows along Michigan avenue in the late 1990s, continued with the fiberglass couches, and culminated with Jaume Plensa’s terrible water park masquerading as public art in the Millennium Park. This American Gothic sculpture just continues the trend. Chicago’s public art is the visual equivalent of CBS’s prime time sitcom line up. Aim low, hit everyone, don’t get too smart.

    P.S. Incidentally, Kapoor’s Cloudgate is the 30 Rock of Chicago’s sitcom line up.

  • http://nessusshirtco.blogspot.com/1971/04/blog-post.html beebe

    I lived in Chicago for ten years–and I consider it my adopted hometown and have a great affection for it–but the last 10-15 years there has been one long unbroken fugue of bad public art. It started with the fiberglass cows along Michigan avenue in the late 1990s, continued with the fiberglass couches, and culminated with Jaume Plensa’s terrible water park masquerading as public art in the Millennium Park. This American Gothic sculpture just continues the trend. Chicago’s public art is the visual equivalent of CBS’s prime time sitcom line up. Aim low, hit everyone, don’t get too smart.

    P.S. Incidentally, Kapoor’s Cloudgate is the 30 Rock of Chicago’s sitcom line up.

  • http://tommoody.us tom moody

    As for the “farmer aspect,” let’s not forget the Grant Wood painting was a clever simulacrum. The model for the farmer was a dentist and the model for the daughter (most assume it’s supposed to be the farmer’s spouse) was Wood’s sister. Wood was a cosmopolitan painter who embraced a “back to the land” aesthetic: the image is a pure studio concoction, populist propaganda if you want to be harsh. Seward Johnson also deals in simulacra but not clever ones–just copies and stereotypes. He is reviled by the art world even more for having an extremely clumsy pair of hands. Like Rocky Balboa, he also works with boxing gloves on.

  • http://tommoody.us tom moody

    As for the “farmer aspect,” let’s not forget the Grant Wood painting was a clever simulacrum. The model for the farmer was a dentist and the model for the daughter (most assume it’s supposed to be the farmer’s spouse) was Wood’s sister. Wood was a cosmopolitan painter who embraced a “back to the land” aesthetic: the image is a pure studio concoction, populist propaganda if you want to be harsh. Seward Johnson also deals in simulacra but not clever ones–just copies and stereotypes. He is reviled by the art world even more for having an extremely clumsy pair of hands. Like Rocky Balboa, he also works with boxing gloves on.

  • http://tommoody.us tom moody

    As for the “farmer aspect,” let’s not forget the Grant Wood painting was a clever simulacrum. The model for the farmer was a dentist and the model for the daughter (most assume it’s supposed to be the farmer’s spouse) was Wood’s sister. Wood was a cosmopolitan painter who embraced a “back to the land” aesthetic: the image is a pure studio concoction, populist propaganda if you want to be harsh. Seward Johnson also deals in simulacra but not clever ones–just copies and stereotypes. He is reviled by the art world even more for having an extremely clumsy pair of hands. Like Rocky Balboa, he also works with boxing gloves on.

  • puffin

    This guy has garbage all over the place.
    “Unconditional Surrender” in Sarasota.

    http://www.travbuddy.com/travel-blogs/51529/Unconditional-Surrender-Bronze-1

  • puffin

    This guy has garbage all over the place.
    “Unconditional Surrender” in Sarasota.

    http://www.travbuddy.com/travel-blogs/51529/Unconditional-Surrender-Bronze-1

  • puffin

    This guy has garbage all over the place.
    “Unconditional Surrender” in Sarasota.

    http://www.travbuddy.com/travel-blogs/51529/Unconditional-Surrender-Bronze-1

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