Status Anxiety

Where species speaks volumes: Stand here for photo op with Flamingo José

Somewhere, sometime, someone had a good idea: Let's create a public-art project that identifies a city with an endemic animal. Let's cookie-cutter-produce them, get businesses to sponsor them on behalf of a charitable organization, give artists a pittance to "decorate" them ($500 and the artist must provide the materials), and then place them strategically throughout said city. Good idea, maybe, but shouldn't we really concentrate our attentions on other public art?

The genesis city and animal was Chicago, those cows back in 1999. Now we hear of fish in New Orleans, ponies in New Mexico, more cows in New York, moose in Toronto, pigs in Cincinnati, beagles in Seattle, and Hasbro Potato Heads in Rhode Island. In South Florida we now have flamingos in Coral Gables and Miami Beach; and for our immigrant nation in Little Havana it seems we'll have cocks on the corners courtesy of the City of Miami.

This would be more properly titled a Tourist Development Project, a City Revenue Project, or Corporate Tax Deduction Project. The art is, as Hannibal Lecter would say, "incidental."

There are flamingos in Miami, though it's a stretch to call them art
Steve Satterwhite
There are flamingos in Miami, though it's a stretch to call them art

Actually the flamingo project was supposedly euthanized after September 11. The cities in question, however, resuscitated the concept and lowered the cost of purchasing a flamingo from $4000 to $2000, making sponsorship more palatable in light of current economic circumstances. The project, which is called Flamingos on the Beach by the Art in Public Places Committee of Miami Beach, and Flamingos in the Gables by the Business Improvement District of Coral Gables, will keep the birds on public property until October. At the end of that month, the Beach will let the sponsors have their flamingos and Coral Gables will auction them off, donating the monies to Charlee Homes for Children. Please note: If you live in Coral Gables and buy yourself a flamingo at auction, this doesn't guarantee you will get approval to install it in your own back yard.

Toronto boasts $400 million injected into its economy by the "lucrative family travel market" created by its moose project and $1.4 million raised for charity. Seems like the charitable portion of this project is also incidental. While New York raised $3.5 million for charity, no figures were given for economic boosts -- but if Toronto is any indication, even after the currency conversion it would be no small potatoes. Which brings me to Rhode Island; it touts its Potato Heads as a campaign and a promotion developed by the Tourism Division, which at least rings true.

Washington, D.C., has been unveiling Party Animals, 100 elephants and 100 donkeys, since May of this year -- but it is unlikely we'll see a cocaine-snorting elephant or a cigar-toting donkey with a lecherous grin, visuals that could actually work and make a statement. Talk about the potential for campaign contribution reforms!

Interesting, though, are the reports of vandalism (some would prefer the act to be called guerrilla art, conceptual art, or even performance art). L.E. Phant, a sculpture dressed as a lawyer outside the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, was robbed of its briefcase; another elephant was covered in ketchup. Chicago experienced a succession of cow-tippings; five Toronto moose had their antlers sawed off, possibly adorning someone's trophy room right now; and sculptures from various cities have been abducted, perhaps to be sighted on eBay.

The speculative dividends of the flamingos on our economy are still to be tabulated, however; South Florida is brimful of avian photo ops. Coral Gables has 43 flamingos located primarily on Miracle Mile and Ponce de Leon, and Miami Beach has 49 concentrated in the higher tourist-traffic areas. As this is already reminiscent of a Disney World culture, we should add to each flamingo a little railing with a plaque that reads: "Stand here for photo op with Flamingo José."

While hearing something like, "Great idea, Marge! Let's go to Miami, I understand they have seven-foot fiberglass flamingos on the sidewalks" would be unusual in family trip planning, it would be truly incredible to hear, "I understand there is a 2002 fill in artist's name flamingo on the corner of Ponce and Miracle Mile" in art circles.

What's up, Miami? On the one hand we give millions to commission singular original work from singular celebrity artists the likes of Claus Oldenburg and Frank Stella (oops). And on the other hand we appropriate the idea of an assembly-line icon that is supposed to identify us as a city, then dress it up as a good cause and throw a few bones to the artists involved, calling it public art.

Now plans are in the works by the City of Miami to put up roosters or, as the inhabitants would prefer to say, nonfighting cocks, which would parenthesize Little Havana between Flagler and Calle Ocho. Are we suffering from status anxiety or re-creating another larger-than-life exile motif?

Participation in a project that uses art as a vehicle to champion another cause is up to the individual artist to decide. But let's call it what it is: a community investment in community economics. Regardless of what a project is called or what function it is meant to perform, as long as we continue to follow instead of lead we will continue to risk suffering from on-the-fringe anxiety.

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