Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A Taco for Lenin


Another picture from Seattle, this time of the Lenin statue that graces the Fremont neighborhood, right in front of the local Taco del Mar. The statue's presence inspires frothing-at-the-mouth rage from the usual quarters, naturally. Do conservatives just have no sense of irony at all? Yes, we all realize he was a bad guy, ok? You'd think that just living here in the irony-soaked, angst-ridden Northwest, at least a very teentsy amount would've rubbed off on them, but apparently not. I mean, the local merchants (capitalist running dogs that they are) decorate Vladimir Ilich for Christmas. In that Christmas article, a local gelato shop owner remarks that she first thought it was a statue of Ivar, the local clam chowder baron. Which, quite honestly, is what I thought at first too. A giant bronze Lenin statue is not exactly the sort of thing you go around expecting to see every day. At least in this country, and in this day and age.

In Budapest, there's an entire outdoor museum devoted to old Socialist Realist sculptures discarded after 1989. I have to admit I rather like some of the statues done in this style. Your art history professor will scoff, of course. I personally think the art world's scorn for all things Soviet is primarily due to aesthetic trendiness, not ideology. While the outside art world had moved on to increasingly abstract and esoteric works, comprehensible only to an elect few, the Soviets stuck with their own brand of romanticized neoclassicism, in art, architecture, music, and literature. In the Western art world, being seen as stodgy and outdated is far worse than being ideologically suspect, so the entire creative output of a very large country was lumped in with the likes of Norman Rockwell, Rogers & Hammerstein, and Thomas Kinkade. It seems to me this is a rather harsh and unfair judgement. Sooner or later a major museum will do a "groundbreaking" show, and there'll be a critical reevaluation, and prices of old Soviet statues will go through the roof. Mark my words. Not next year, and probably not in the next five or ten, but sometime within our lifetimes, I think we'll see it.

Meanwhile, the Financial Times has a great article about the ambivalent legacy of 20th century modernism, in response to a new show at the V&A Museum in London. It'd be interesting to go travel a couple of centuries into the future and see what stuff from the 20th century turned out to have staying power in the long term and what didn't. I think the results would be surprising, although I wouldn't dare to guess about the particulars.

It's not like most of the art created in the West during the last hundred years or so has been all that fantastic. The last 50 or so, in particular, have produced some great works, and literally tons of absolute crap. I'm not one of those people who freak out about abstract art and sculpture, and I think some of it can be quite nice. There's even a small amount of modern classical music out there that I'd consider to be "nice". But it's rare for a modern artwork to elicit a stronger reaction than that, and quite a few simply get dismissed without evoking any sort of feeling or response at all. This is fine in an art museum; different works will strike different people in different ways, and all that. However, if you're going to plunk a sculpture down in a park or public square, I'd argue that you have additional obligations toward the general (i.e. non-art-major) public. Presumably it's supposed to be there for everyone, not just an in-crowd elite, so you should at least try to make the work appealing to a broader cross-section of society. There's a limit to how much aggressively ugly modernism the public should be asked to put up with. I don't care what the experts say, Rusting Chunks #5 is not a real improvement over a grouping of heroic steelworkers and peasants striding into the glorious future. Yes, a world of nothing but endless worker-and-peasant statues would be monotonous, to say the least, but an occasional one here and there would be nice, just to spice things up.

You'd have to adapt the style to local conditions, of course. No Lenins (Fremont notwithstanding), and most likely no hammers-and-sickles. I mean, nobody actually wants to live in a totalitarian society with a broken Leninist command economy, except perhaps the president of Belarus, and he's a complete lunatic. You could possibly get away with a statue of John Reed, since he was originally from Portland and all. (I've heard there's a park bench dedicated to him somewhere around town, but I don't know where it is, if it exists.) For the most part, though, you'd have a lot of burly, square-jawed loggers, cowboys, and fishermen. I recall having seen at least one example of a Soviet statue of heroic engineers, and I'd obviously be ok with that. Heck, I'd even model for one, if I was asked nicely.

No comments :