It’s commonplace that contemporary art is too often silly, incomprehensible, ugly, or even disgusting. But it isn’t often that a work of art is actually considered terrifying.
Recently the hometown fans of legendary comedienne Lucille Ball were stricken at the unveiling of a rather nightmarish bronze statue in her honor. Rightfully nicknamed “Scary Lucy” in the media, it purports to depict Ms. Ball, who died in 1989, in perhaps her most famous comedy routine: as a commercial pitchwoman for the unpalatable “Vitameatavegamin.”
The statue caused such a backlash among the outraged citizens of Ball’s birthplace of Celoron, New York that its creator actually wrote to The Hollywood Reporter to publicly apologize for what he called “by far my most unsettling sculpture,” and offered to fix it.
This prompted The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones to address the bigger picture of bad sculpture in a rant with the outstanding title, “The scourge of the bronze zombies: how terrible statues are ruining art.” Jones declared that
It may be time to ban artists from creating statues. They have simply lost the ability to do it. The art that once gave us Michelangelo’s David and Rodin’s Burghers of Calais has degenerated into a cynical province of second-rate hacks who are filling up city squares, railway stations and other public spaces all over the world with ugly, stupid and occasionally terrifying parodies of the human form.
Don’t hold back, Mr. Jones. Tell us how you really feel.
In addition to “Scary Lucy,” Jones went on to name two other statues in London as examples of such “crimes against good taste,” including the ghastly A Conversation with Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square, which depicts what appears to be the decomposing author bursting out of his coffin; a “gaunt and deathly” bust of Margaret Thatcher in the Falkland Islands; and, curiously, a statue of a raincoated Peter Falk as Detective Columbo in Budapest, of all places. “There’s only one thing to be said in favor of all these dire statues,” Jones concluded. “Simply by looking at their failure, future generations may be inspired to create better.”
What’s with the apparent epidemic of ugly public sculptures? Jones is at a loss to explain it. After all, he wrote, “Modern art supposedly killed off this kind of vulgar realism.” But modern—or more precisely, postmodern—art, with its deconstruction of the beautiful, is precisely what is to blame.
The experience of beauty, as philosopher Roger Scruton puts it in a brilliant little must-read from 2009, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, is a reverential one in which art “points us beyond this world, to ‘a kingdom of ends’ in which our immortal longings and our desire for perfection are finally answered.” The yearning for beauty is our aspiration “towards the highest unity with the transcendental,” and the most emotionally and philosophically compelling art fulfills that aspiration.
But postmodern art represents what Scruton calls “a flight from beauty” that no longer points us toward the sacred; indeed, it actively seeks to desecrate the sacred. The result, he says, is the rise of “self-consciously transgressive” works that do not engage us spiritually or emotionally; they leave viewers cold, confused, even repulsed. “The degradation of art has never been more apparent,” Scruton declares in his book—and as the Guardian critic Jones noted, it’s plenty apparent in today’s public sculpture.
What then can be done to reverse the tide of ugly public art? For a start, we can follow the example of the people of Celoron, New York by complaining loudly about bad art and demanding its removal. Maybe this will begin to send a message to artists and their sponsors that we will no longer accept fraudulence or kitsch or contempt for beauty in the public square. Perhaps it will encourage sculptors once again to find value in beauty, and to strive to unite us with the transcendental.