What bad art is for

When I was in San Francisco last week I was walking down Market Street and heading toward a restaurant after leaving a friend’s work party. That’s when I noticed this sculpture.

Do you see it? I know it’s dark. Even during the day, this art is designed to be sort of tucked away. It’s an ornament for this building’s entrance. It’s an angel, I guess. In its own way, it’s the perfect symbol of our time.

It might be an angel, but it could just as easily be a demon or nothing at all, actually. There’s the featureless face, saying nothing. There are the limpish wings, apparently holding this figure upright at least as much as the internal metal piping that’s (cleverly?) left visible in its legs. There are no arms, because even if it had something to say it definitely shouldn’t call out or gesture to passersby. It’s just bad art, commissioned for a limited public purpose to be unobjectionable and sort of pleasant without the chance of any aesthetic or sectarian dispute over it, because while it was made to seem like something that might stir the spirit, it doesn’t convict the observer and tends not to stir sentiment, either.

Why settle for something like this when sculptors used to produce remarkable public goods like Angel of the Resurrection? What is bad art for?

I think bad art helps satisfy our sense of the sacred in public life (of the human need for symbols of transcendence) without saying anything concrete that anyone would really have to talk about, disagree about, or have their lives arrested by and shaped in some positive way. We’re able to have art that suggests “there’s something more to all of this,” but without trying to cultivate virtue in the lives of its admirers, because what is truth? It’s better not to get into that.

Another thing that bad art is good for is removing the need for conservationists to worry about more stuff to preserve in the future. Artists who could be inheriting and iterating on the received wisdom of thousands of years of human experience are instead choosing to flow with the fashions of their time by making disposable ornamentation with the cheapest materials. It’s as disposable as so much of its surroundings in the rest of our culture, which makes it simpler to replace with something else in the future.

Bad art is encouraging, too. It reminds us that we can be mediocre and still successful. It might be a distinctly American thing in this way, where in the midst of one of our most ambitious and wealthy cities, we prove that we still don’t really know why we’re walking into these buildings every day in the first place.

MLK Jr. Plaza/Fraser Garage project

It’s offensive to my sense of propriety that such a thing as the “MLK Jr. Plaza/Fraser Garage rehabilitation project” exists. I say this in the context of having thought about personifying Penn State’s monumental leaders, wherein I would include MLK as one of the place’s more notable guests.

But in the Borough of State College’s formulation? Of MLK being honored as part of a parking garage “rehabilitation” project? No.

He spoke to Penn Staters months before his historical visit to Selma, Alabama. He spoke about American values in a time when others were pushing to speak exclusively about racial values. He spoke inclusively about issues that were too often then perceived to be exclusive by their nature. He was a remarkable visitor in the Nittany Valley’s history. He deserves far better than to be recognized as part of a municipal parking project.

He deserves a place on Penn State’s campus, specifically in bronze in front of Rec Hall where he spoke. I hope someday, regardless of what happens in State College, the deciders at Penn State place a fitting monument to a man who embodied Pennsylvanian ideals of inclusion far earlier than when they came to be understood as American ideals.

‘Memorials for the future’

This time last year I wrote about the value of personifying monumental leaders, specifically on the Penn State campus. I later wrote about Monument Lab, a public art project “seeking ideas for a new Philadelphia monument.”

Recently, Memorials for the Future came across my radar, a similar concept with a different approach to building monuments:

The National Capital Planning Commission and the National Park Service, working in tandem with the Van Alen Institute in New York, announced “Memorials for the Future,” an open design competition for new memorials. The contest is asking not only for memorial designs but memorial concepts—opening up the questions of whom, what, and why to the public.

In effect, the people responsible for guiding memorials to completion are putting the cart before the horse. They’re asking for designs that will drive the debate about what memorials should do. …

The contest is purely for honors, not to produce a built memorial. But any memorial starts with a grassroots campaign. A gripping memorial design associated with Black Lives Matter, for example, or Vision Zero—or abortion or suicide or gun violence or drug abuse or really any controversial subject in life—could generate its own momentum.

This seems like a better way to approach building monuments. Let the people themselves express ways to enshrine their spirit across the landscape.

Shakespeare memorial

Over the weekend I was in Philadelphia and went with a friend from Old City to Brewerytown to check out the neighborhood. We Ubered there for $10, but it was a beautiful day and we ended up with more time than we expected so we walked back through Fairmount Park and across the city.

On Logan Circle near the Free Library we came across this Shakespeare Memorial. I’m sure I’ve seen it before, but I hadn’t really looked at it before.

What does Shakespeare imply? If all the world’s a stage, and we’re but players, we’ve got a responsibility to put on a good show.

Running in Philadelphia

I remember John Mayer commenting one time about what it feels like to miss the gym for a while, something about feeling “like a pile of wet cement.” That’s how I feel if I don’t run every so often. I spent Independence Day in Philadelphia, and fit a run in while there from Old City across past the Philadelphia Museum of Art and back.


When running past the museum, I stopped to admire John Marshall welcoming visitors to the Impressionist exhibit. The podium he’s sitting on reads:

John Marshall
Chief Justice of the United States
As soldier he fought that the nation might come into being.
As expounder of the Constitution he gave it length of days.

This reminded me John Adam’s remark to the French, (paraphrasing) that he studied war in order that his children might enjoy peace, and in turn study things like the arts.

Independence Day is a celebration not only of our freedom as a people, but also of the Constitutional order that preserves our liberty. Like art, it’s important to study.


Bruce Shakely, my great uncle, turns 92 this month. It’s hard to believe it’s already been two years since I headed out to Western Pennsylvania to celebrate his 90th birthday with him in what became a national family reunion. It was during that visit that my grandfather’s cousin’s daughter and I connected and she provided me with the genealogical records that I needed to join the Sons of the American Revolution:

The SAR is a historical, educational, and patriotic non-profit, United States 501(c)3, corporation that seeks to maintain and extend: the institutions of American freedom, an appreciation for true patriotism, a respect for our national symbols, the value of American citizenship, the unifying force of e pluribus unum that has created, from the people of many nations, one nation and one people.

We do this by perpetuating the stories of patriotism, courage, sacrifice, tragedy, and triumph of the men who achieved the independence of the American people in the belief that these stories are universal ones of man’s eternal struggle against tyranny, relevant to all time, and will inspire and strengthen each succeeding generation as it too is called upon to defend our freedoms on the battlefield and in our public institutions.

SAR has roughly 30,000 national members. This pales in comparison to the Daughters of the American Revolution that have more like 300,000 members. I don’t know whether that means SAR has historically done a poor job of recruitment, whether DAR has done better, or whether one gender tends to be more or less interested in membership.

It is fascinating to be a member, and receive the regular news mailings from the national, state, and local chapter. I feel a bit more connected both to my Revolutionary-era ancestors and my family, and also to Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. A small example is Washington Square in Philadelphia, where a small memorial to Washington stands with a little altar and perpetual flame. This was placed there in part through SAR efforts in the 1950s.

Having the SAR connection is helpful for me to think about the sort of things that might be done in the future based on the past. I’m glad I joined and hope it can become a wider family tradition.

Conceptualizing new monuments

I wrote in April about the value of personifying monumental leaders through monumental statuary. Specifically, I was urging Penn State do be more imaginative in its approach to its campus in honoring its most significant personalities.

Since then, Monument Lab came across my radar. It’s a “public art project seeking ideas for a new Philadelphia monument.” Jennifer Lynn writes:

Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia” is a collaboration of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy; the Mural Arts Program; the University of Pennsylvania; and the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

The project, which will set up outside City Hall in May with an array of installations, public events, and talks by artists, will try to enlist the public to talk and think about a new monument for Philadelphia.

“An ideal monument is one that would reflect our core values and visions for the city,” said Monument Lab co-curator Paul Farber.

What Monument Lab seeks to do sounds great. I’m generally skeptical of projects that define themselves with one-cent phrases like “core values and visions,” but Classicizing Philadelphia’s take helps me understand the vision better:

Few people engage the classical world in conversation any more.  Classicism and its monuments seem to reflect the values and monuments of an elite.  The conversation with Greece and Rome belongs, it seems, to the past, and to the people who imagined the Second Bank, or the statue of McClellan next to City Hall, or the Latin inscriptions that are in every sense over people’s heads on Philadelphia streets.

Monument Lab invites a different kind of dialogue: what do we want to say about who we are now?  As their guiding question puts it, “What is an appropriate monument for the currentcity of Philadelphia?” …

A monument for 21st century Philadelphia, he suggested, should look beneath the classical veneer to the core underneath, and the work of the people who made it.  The current city of Philadelphia wants to remember itself as a city made not only by a classically minded elite, but also by the people who made the bricks in City Hall.

I think that the most timeless monuments tend to be the ones that seek to convey knowledge in some way, usually through embodiment of a particular person or a monument that represents a person or foundational story.

The Washington Monument does this as well as the Lincoln Memorial. They’re timeless, they tell stories, and they invite admirers to understand themselves better as a result. On the other hand, Chicago’s Millennium Park Cloud Gate I think does none of these things.