Visual Art A Monument to All That Is Broken
posted by October 22 at 13:39 PMon
This is Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, which stands in Red Square at UW. Four versions of it exist, one in Houston. Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones today provides a reminder of the obelisk’s political life.
In Houston in 1969, city officials didn’t want it to be a public memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. in the wake of his assassination.
The proposal to treat it as a prominent King memorial was put forward by the famous art collecting family the Menils. (Their museum complex currently houses the sculpture.) In another version of the story told here, they initially responded this way:
After being told that city officials would reject a public memorial to King, the de Menils proposed that the sculpture be placed in front of City Hall and that the base bear the words Forgive Them, for They Know Not What They Do.
The story about the obelisk as a sign of race relations is something to keep in mind as you pass this thing by on the eve of the election that may give us our first black president. Are black voters going to be held back at the gates again (like in 2000)? Is the obelisk going to fall all the way this time? Or maybe the obelisk is a totally outdated symbol of race relations at this point; what would a new one look like?
Broken Obelisk represents more than one broken system: public art is another. Newman said he intended the obelisk as a beacon of hope—a sign that things, even broken things, could get better. But part of what’s so great about the sculpture is that it has an equally dark heart. It represents something already fallen, but only halfway. This present state of grace feels like its bounce moment, the moment its tip hits a ground point before the whole thing crashes down to pieces.
Public art with a dark heart is rare these days. The obelisk reminds me of something Seattle artist Dan Webb recently wrote in an essay called “I Heart Public Art” in which he critiques both the gallery system and the public art system (published in La Especial Norte and available at galleries):
Conceptual art has become the new orthodoxy, rooted in something that was hard won, and enduring, and has since evolved into something that is too frequently facile and rote. Hard won principles become short cuts to lesser practitioners; many artists today seem content to be merely clever.
Public art is in quite a bubble as well. It is fixated on trying to be art, without the teeth. When Brian Eno was asked his opinion of New Age music, which he is generally credited with inspiring, he said he didn’t like any of it because it lacked a sense of evil. True that. When public artists voluntarily dumb things down, erase the evil, they ultimately come across as condescending.