In a rare moment of descriptive inspiration, County Commissioner John Rodstrom recently called the kind of art that has been showing up in Broward's public spaces "plop art."
Rodstrom, who is no art critic (he's a lawyer with a B.A. in political science), was commenting on a proposed $800,000 expenditure to place a 90-foot multicolored tower among the cranes of Port Everglades. In austere times like these, Rodstrom wanted to know, do we really need such expensive baubles?
The answer is, clearly, yes. We need public art. We need it as landmarks ("Meet me behind the courthouse, next to the Rice Cake") and as conversation stimulators ("It's a fur-covered cooler." "No, no, it's a Shaquille O'Neal sneaker kit."). And, of course, there's nothing like having a four-ton slab of rusted metal to stub out your cigarette on.
But seriously, folks, public art is part of the glue that binds the community. It humanizes urban grids, softening the harsh lines of public buildings. Sometimes it can deliver a jolt of cultural clarity. In Italy, outdoor statuary and murals have created an illusory world of saints and angels peeking out from niches and cornices at camera-wielding tourists. In Paris, there's the Eiffel Tower; in London, the statue of Admiral Nelson.
In South Florida, we have, uh, shapes. Boxes. Disks. Cones. Mysterious doodads that hang on public walls. Tired of sitting at home, counting the mosquitoes on your ceiling? Go out and catch some taxpayer-financed public art.
Giant Gumby. Wow!
Taxes, though. There's the rub.We're paying for this glop. Big time. Millions of dollars of public money have gone into adorning our public buildings and parks with works that seem to have been produced by artists channeling the guy who invented the cinder block. There are cylindrical stairwells on the corners of the parking garage at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport ($1.2 million), and the brand-new stone block assemblage in front of the Palm Beach County Courthouse ($350,000) is actually a security barrier to keep cars off the pavement. The Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport alone houses more than $3 million of so-called art, much of which is passed without particular notice by the throngs of passengers and airport employees.
"Yeah, uh, I don't know what that's about," shrugged the man running one of the car rental counters in Terminal 1, nodding toward a prosaic 50-foot window treatment whose creator apparently sought to lull passersby with repetitive strings of soporific phrases ("cloudlesssky cloudlesssky cloudlesssky...").
Public art in America has never gotten much respect. Pigeons spatter it, graffiti artists and taggers use it as a medium, skateboard fanatics test its curves and dips, wastrels turn it into public urinals. You don't have to be an art critic to make a critique.
Of course, we're talking about art that has traveled through the wringer of local politics. Since 1995, Broward County has required that 2 percent of the cost of new facilities go for public art. Palm Beach County has yet to approve a public art ordinance, but voters last year approved a $1 million allocation for public art as part of a $50 million recreation and culture bond. A few cities, such as Sunrise, have enacted their own public art measures.
Typically, art projects are advertised, like road repair contracts. It's often the artist with the best rap or the one with the best connections who gets the contract.
The final arbiters are often politicians, like County Commissioners Sue Gunzburger (with a master's in clinical social work from Barry University) and Lori Parrish (a former bookkeeper and plant store owner), both members of the cultural affairs panel that has the final say on county art. The average pol's artistic adventurousness doesn't go much beyond Margate.
So Rodstrom's title sticks. Not just because of the way this schlock has been palmed off on South Floridians -- that is, plopped disharmoniously into public spaces, with little relationship to its surroundings. But also because it's Bad Art. The airport window, the courthouse security barrier, the collection of drop-dead dumb abstractions in the Boca Raton Museum of Art's Palmetto Boulevard sculpture garden, the pretentiously arty colossuses in downtown Fort Lauderdale -- they all bring a malodorous element to the subject.
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We offer a guide to some of the worst.
|Big Mac Depot. The renowned checkered stairway at the Fort Lauderdale bus depot, courtesy of the design firm Architectonica, leads nowhere. But that eye-catching, fast-food-style design is dead-on appropriate -- for the stairs have cunningly evolved as a secluded depository for wrappers and paper cups from the McDonald's across the street. ($25,000)|
|Not-So-Native Flora to Impress the Folks from Kansas City. There werent enough palm trees here, so Broward County brought some in from California. Freeze-dried, plastic-dipped ones. Theyre in Terminal 1 and elsewhere at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. ($114,225)|
|Fat Guys Are Artistic Too. This is not actually a sculpture but artist Duane Hansons cousin Howie. His mom says he can come home from Terminal 3 in the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport anytime he wants, only not too soon. ($170,000)|
|Gumby Descending a Staircase. The artist said his stick figures were Broward County sheriff's deputies marching in lockstep toward a Dunkin' Donuts. Not a good idea. But they let him give it a pretentious title anyway, Unitas, and plopped it in front of the Broward County public safety complex. ($186,200)|
|Variation on a Theme from the Back of a Charmin Wrapper. The Broward County Environmental Services Department -- they're the ones who, you know, get the ugly fecal matter out of the water. So Stonehenge-like runes sitting in a pond, with lots of perches for pigeons to do their, er, thing? Makes you think, doesn't it? ($48,600)|
|Hey, Let's Put on an Art Show. Third-grade art teacher Felicia Selkin just knew the kids could do something artistic with teacups. Unfortunately, all the good stuff got broken when Garth Hasselbring dropped it out of a school-bus window. The Boca Raton Museum of Art had to settle for this stack of cups with a stupid kettle on top. (On loan)|
|Fort Lauderdale's One True Masterpiece. In other cities, they have war heroes and religious figures and soaring monuments. We get a freakin' 32-foot-high rice cake. This one's located northeast of the Broward County Jail on the bankS of the New River. ($480,000)|
|Homeless on the Range. William Reed's iconic upended disk with trail-damaged edges, at the Hoernle Art School, was clearly inspired by lines from famed cowboy rapper Tex Stratton ("Wagon wheel, keep rollin'/Through the slush and grass/Wagon wheel keep grindin'/Til you crack y'r dusty ass"). (On loan)|
|Homage to, uh, the cardboard box. Time Capsules of the South East, Alan Sonfist's five square pieces in the weed-strewn sculpture garden of the Countess Henrietta de Hoernle Art School in Boca Raton, evokes boxes of Hamburger Helper and Cocoa Puffs in a supermarket aisle. Bravo, Sonfist -- you captured the wild chaotic flow of American postindustrial culture. Or something. (On loan)|
|Ball of Confusion. This lovingly assembled sphere of conflicting forces on the FAU campus in Fort Lauderdale was reportedly inspired by a lecture on Semiotic Premythic Analysis (and definitely is not, as described dismissively by sophomore Larry Tepperwein, "a piece of shit that anyone could do.") (Cost unknown)|
|Do You Know the Muffler Man? Car parts turned into art. We love this art. Give us no highbrow sneers. This is pure genius. Kevin Doyle, owner of Mad Hatter Muffler in Fort Lauderdale, turns this stuff out like Delco makes spark plugs. And it's inexpensive. For what one of those colossal head-scratchers costs, Doyle will populate the county with muffler dogs, muffler caterpillars, gators, unicorns, and mechanical men. This one is near Griffin Road on State Road 441. ($200)|
Got a favorite piece of bad art? Send details to email@example.com or mail to Tailpipe, New Times BPB, 16 NE Fourth St., Ste. 200, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33311.