Why nebulous monuments are a bad idea
If an individual person wishes to collect abstract art with meaning that is difficult to discern, that’s fine, but monuments intended for public viewing should resemble something the common person can identify.
Where Wilkes-Barre Public Square adjoins with North Main Street, there lies a lumpy, ill-defined arch-like thing that the late local artist and armchair art critic James T. Mayock referred to as “the poop”—a moniker which honestly seems to refer to the only real-life thing apt for its appearance. But obviously, it wasn’t intended to be perceived in that way.
Recently added to the north end of the River Commons is another curious sculpture, which seems to the casual onlooker to resemble the spiraling horns of a giant metallic eland or impala. Actually, they’re supposed to be giant Ribbons of Hope. The concept of hope can be seen in the ribbons quite easily, but only by those already initiated into their esoteric meaning.
A venture across busy River Street to view the Ribbons up close revealed two skaters nearby braving fierce March winds to perform their tricks. I reasoned that the skaters had to be the most visually familiar with the sculpture, since they probably spent the most time near it. But they didn’t seem to have much of an opinion of it. Standing with a view to the wide Susquehanna River, I asked one skater named Tony what kind of monument he would like to see. He wasn’t terribly interested in monuments, but he said he’d like to see a skate park built because skaters had trouble finding good places to recreate. Tony’s friend mentioned that Betsy Summers, a 2011 candidate for Wilkes-Barre Mayor (and present contributor to this newspaper), had promised to build one for them if she were elected. A skate park wouldn’t be art, but at least it would provide some function.
Anyway, Tony did suggest that a wall be designated for legal graffiti as a way for the public to express their artistic inclinations . . . or perhaps skater affiliations. Such a wall would be bound to produce art collectively more discernible than the Ribbons of Hope.
Anyway, monuments, like any collective creation, must be of a one-size-fits-all nature. If few people among the public share common values, then it is agreed that a monument must at least not offend anyone. But the problem is that totally non-offensive monuments that depict abstract art tend to be rather enigmatic, and so much so that they, including “the poop” and the Ribbons, end up offending people like me who want things to make sense to everyone.
Sculptures clearly aiming for realism, like the eagles atop the Market Street bridge or the statue of Columbus in Public Square, at least refer to something understandable, and objects identifiable. Even if some people may not like Columbus, they at least know that a statue of Christopher Columbus portrays—wait for it—Christopher Columbus. Someone not interested in reading the description underneath his likeness would at least know that it represents some important person from the past.
But if people look at monuments without understanding what they are, it will breed an overall disinterest with understanding the world in general. Most passive observers driving down River Street or skating on the River Commons are not art enthusiasts and will not seek out the artist’s intended meaning. They will merely think nothing of nebulous sculptures, as our skater friends thought of the Ribbons. But it seems it would be preferable if they knew what a statue meant and either agreed or disagreed with it, because then the landscape of life would convey meaning and not be cloaked in nebulousness.
For more on this topic, please see Kirk Savage’s excellent article here: www.nps.gov/history/history/resedu/savage.htm.