Friday, November 20, 2009

Strength of America

Strength of America

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At the corner of 35th & Belmont, in inner SE Portland, is an old historic fire station that now serves as a firefighting museum. On the streetcorner in front of the museum is this monumentally craptacular statue called "Strength of America", which is supposed to be a 9/11 memorial. You didn't realize we already had one of those, did you?

Strength of America
Portland Public Art describes it with an extra helping of snark:


As a nation we’ll look back on our response to 9/11 in a decade with chagrin, I expect. So many decisions made from fear instead of facts; and some of these were aesthetic as well.

This Doc Savage mock up has his hands full, holding an enormous snake with one hand, and a kerosene lamp in the other. Adjoining him is a US flag and an eagle, wings out swept. For some reason he is shirtless, dressed in jeans and tiny work boots. Surrounding the base are roughed Plexi blocks with names of people killed on 9/11, and the lord’s prayer written in childish script and signed by Caswell.

It’s a blink and a silent WTF? Damn, you’ll say, that’s incongruous for Sunnyside. Then you’ll shift it into the context of 9/11 and list it within that long list of other bad decisions our nation made afterward, we as individuals made.

One quick quibble with that: The words in childish script are actually not the Lord's Prayer, they're lyrics to "God Bless America". You know, the song Kate Smith used to sing before every Flyers riot, er, game.

Strength of America

Nitpicking aside, it really is a very weird statue. Note how it entertains fanciful notions about male anatomy. Look at that moobage, with man-nipples an inch or so too low. And the abs, which stretch all the way up to the moobage, with no intervening rib cage or anything. And the hands, oddly long and skinny fingers all about the same length.

Strength of America

The snake's cool though. I think the snake's supposed to symbolize the Evildoers, slithering about and deviously doing evil with their Weapons of Mass Constriction. Or something. Whatever it represents, the man-n-snake combo invites comparison with other person-n-snake-themed artworks down through the ages -- "Laocoön and His Sons", for example, and who can forget the famous Nastassja Kinski photo with the python?.

Strength of America

The eagle's not terrible either, although it's kind of smiling, which is weird. And it's stealing our hero's flag, which eagles aren't known to do in the wild. Maybe if you took the flag, dunked it in fish innards, and wrapped it around a live salmon, then eagles might take a professional interest. Although then you've defiled the flag and you're supposed to burn it, because them's the rules, fish innards and all, and that would really smell. So let's just agree that the bit with the eagle isn't modeled on real life.

Strength of America

Call me a minimalist if you like, but all in all I think the memorial would've been more effective with just the rubble and the fire helmet, and maybe the tablets with the names.

One thing that surprised me is the size of the thing. The photos I saw made it look bigger than it actually is. In reality it's only maybe 2/3 or 3/4 life size, if that, and like all the other photos I've seen of it, my photos fail to convey this small scale. I'm actually kind of disappointed by the whole thing. With subject matter like this, you naturally expect something a bit more imposing. If the scale matched the sheer melodrama of the thing, our hero here ought to be Paul Bunyan's big brother, and the flag-thieving eagle should be about pterodactyl-sized, and the whole thing would constantly play patriotic country-western songs at 120 decibels. Except on Sundays, obviously.

Strength of America
Based on my limited and biased experience in this area, I'm working on a set of guidelines to help you, the Gentle Reader, determine whether something constitutes Bad Art. Here are the rules so far, as they apply to statues. Abstract art will likely need its own set of guidelines.

  • If a statue is painted, it's Bad Art. It's a sign the sculptor wasn't talented enough to get the point across with mere sculpture, and had to layer on a little paint-by-numbers to make the thing work.
  • If it's a grouping with more than one person, it's often a sign of badness. In particular, if there are more people than strictly necessary, two or six when one would've done just fine, it indicates the artist doesn't know when to stop piling it on. Also, if people are depicted talking or looking at each other, that's surprisingly hard to get right. They tend to come out looking like brainless idiots, badly sculpted. Whereas if your people are working together (say, raising the flag over Iwo Jima) or just standing in a group (say, riding an elevator), often that can be fine.
  • A similar situation applies when there's at least one person, plus one or more animals. Equestrian statues are an exception; they're a traditional form, and they can turn out ok. I suppose because the rider isn't typically interacting with the horse.
  • It's also generally bad if one or more children is present, regardless of whatever else is there. Sculptures of children tend to turn out looking kind of weird and creepy, especially if they're smiling. Almost as creepy as 19th century painted portraits of kids, come to think of it.
  • If any books are present, and their titles are visible, typically it's bad art. If you're meant to see the books (Bible, Das Kapital, Kerouac, etc.), a heavy-handed message is usually intended, and the artist wasn't able to make the art speak for itself.
  • Similarly, if the art comes with a long explanatory plaque or artist's statement, it's usually bad. The art should either speak for itself, or STFU.
  • If the artist bungles basic human anatomy, it's automatically bad, even if none of the other guidelines are met.
  • If the art dates from before, oh.... say 1800 or so, it gets a free pass, as the product of another culture and another age.

The 1800 cutoff is needed because as it turns out, the aforementioned "Laocoön" clearly breaks the multiple-person and person-and-animal rules, and it's long been speculated that the ancient Greeks painted their statues, which would break another rule. And the two sons, well, they look maybe old enough to escape the no-kids rule. At least nobody's carrying any books. So, in short, make of these guidelines what you will.

Strength of America

Some people might go, wait a minute, the last time you really bashed something for being Bad Art was "The Promised Land" (the crappy pioneer sculpture in the Plaza Blocks), and like "Strength of America" it's conservative Bad Art. Isn't this Good vs. Bad yardstick just your ideological biases showing? Actually no, that's not it. Or that's not completely it anyway. I do have another Bad Art post in the works, this time about a local example of liberal bad art that just might be the most supremely craptastic statue of them all. Here in town, I mean. Any guesses?



Strength of America

Strength of America

Strength of America

Strength of America

2 comments :

Mary Sue said...

There's another 9-11 memorial around 14th and Burnside, I want to say it's on the funeral home lawn there, I've seen it driving past but never bothered to investigate further.

nuovorecord said...

What I want to know is what kind of dumb-ass fireman is doing his job shirtless?