Die Zaubertuba

Musings on the intersection of the arts, education, and culture in our communities.

On Interpreting Abstract Public Art

A visitor approached me early last Fall, and asked “…so what’s that supposed to be?” pointing out the massive Rod Kagen sculpture we’d recently installed outside.


“Life, the Universe, and Everything?”

I jumped into docent mode, rattling off the name of the piece, “42 (Birthday Series),” the artist, a little bit on where it came from, and so forth. Seeing this information obviously was not sufficient, I paused a moment, then said, “What do you think it is?”

Full disclosure–I’m a generalist, my background is in music, and the “art is what you think it is” retort was perhaps a bit of a cop-out. But the oft-used phrase is sometimes a legitimate attachment point for artists–particularly abstract artists. What followed, however, was a very cordial but brief conversation, the substance of which could be boiled down to the visitor having a respect for artists in general, but also having an apologetic failure to understand or connect with this piece in particular.

These exchanges are not uncommon among curators and public administrators. Part of the difficulty of abstract public art is that a percentage of the public has had very little if any formal, or even rudimentary training in art appreciation and criticism. I fear that percentage may be large. With the current focus on “we need more students excelling in STEM fields,” and “Common Core will save our public schools” (it will not, but that’s a blog for another day), the percentage will only increase.

Whatever the artist’s intent in a piece, in abstract works that intent is often “lost in translation.” If there is a thematic symbolism in the work, that symbolism is lost. If a work’s intent is much more aesthetic in nature, the viewer often does not have enough context to grasp that aesthetic, and formulate either a positive or negative impression of it. This is saddening, not only for the lost opportunity on the part of the artist, but for the broader comment this makes on society’s value of art as a whole.

We are blessed to have another Kagen piece in the same sculpture park,an iconic totem from his “Tapered Column” series. The piece was donated to the University in the memory of a former president, Leon Doane, who served a brief year before dying of cancer. Doane was an impressively-statured man who made a huge impact in his short time as President. When people ask about the tall, impressive sculpture, I relate the story of Doane and the reason behind the work’s donation. I have yet to find a person so informed–whether they are familiar with the University or not–who hasn’t instantly made an emotional connection with the piece.

Here’s at least one great power of abstract art; the context around it can assign meaning beyond that which the artist even intended. I’m not suggesting every abstract piece of art needs it, but in this case the idea of the man creates an alternate path to appreciation. That appreciation may lead to more time spent contemplating the piece, and more emotional and conceptual connections made.

Our task in curating public art lies in helping people to make those connections. Sometimes a plaque with a single word will suffice. Other times it requires more effort. Personally I think we have our work cut out for us in advocacy for the arts and arts appreciation–and not just in the schools, mind you. We need to figure out how to connect with our existing communities, all the while working hard to advocate so those connections will be easier to make for our future generations.

This, so at some point in the future, a passerby might pause to look at “42 (Birthday Series),” and be able to take something away from the experience.

I’m not saying people don’t now–but more people should. What do you think?


1 Comment

  1. This is a tricky subject. If one has a piece of art that they’ve created acquired for personal purposes because it connects to them then there’s no reason to object that the meaning or context isn’t readily apparent, but when there’s talk of the importance of context, in relation to art that is in a public space, then that context is not available unless there is a placard to provide some explanation. There will inescapably be many for whom there is no meaning because they have no access to the context and so the art will not be appreciated.

    I think ultimately, for publicly installed art, then the art is most effective when the location of the installation relates to the context and purpose of the art. Also, I believe the aesthetic is very important because if there is no meaning available, at least people might think it looks nice and not wonder where the construction is occurring that created this pile of debris.


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