Op-Ed

Whitney Baker: Give viewers a voice on disruptive public art

The mural at North Limestone and East Sixth Street is the work of team of German artists known as Herakut.
The mural at North Limestone and East Sixth Street is the work of team of German artists known as Herakut.

Lexington is getting all inked up, mural-wise.

The scene might be late 1864, because many of the main players are carcasses. starving children and Abe Lincoln.

Sadly, like "The Recent Unpleasantness," an important notion (not the salvation of the United States, but the improvement of our city) has turned ugly. To decorate our city as if it is your dorm room is short-sighted.

But Abe on Vine is awesome. He is a balm to the claustrophobic tunnel that is Vine Street East. The Emancipator looks out over an unsettled hardscape as if to say, "freedom is full spectrum and contemporary."

I agree, and the popularity of the piece is widespread. But I very much dislike some of the murals going up, and I am not alone.

Herakut's pieces on Short and Lime feel simultaneously manipulative and pointless (though I have friends who like them very much). Between those polarities, we have horses, buses, musicians and more. Lexington will never agree on what is good, or pretty. But we can create a positive public environment by carefully considering art's role in making our shared space.

Lexington has done public art beautifully.

Horse Mania was fantastic, because the almost universally beloved form of the horse effectively "snuck in" styles of art including, not only the conventionally beautiful, but what would ordinarily be dismissed by many as weird, scary or "not for me." Somehow, the horse made it OK to look.

Furthermore, it tapped local talent. It excited the city for months. Public art of any longevity equates force-feeding imagery or experience without the consent of those who must see it. As it is for ambient sound, color and landscape, there is for art a neutral: mildly offensive at worst, lauded as beautiful at best, bandwidth that is valuable by virtue of a generally benign reception. Public action needn't have an agenda beyond public well-being.

Art will be offensive sometimes, and it is not in the public's best interest to censor art. Art has a job to do. Sometimes that job is to make us reflect on what we hold true. But, to see 99.99 percent of artwork, the viewer owns the experience. He or she says "when" (or "uncle", as the case may be).

Is it OK to force someone to view art, especially disquieting art, especially for the greater part of his or her waking life? If any artist is going to seize the public viewshed, I say that artist ought to hold to a reasonable standard of beauty or to neutrality or, if there is a point to be made that is disquieting, to make his art temporary.

Otherwise, the artist is making assumptions about people he or she will never know, particularly about their state of mind. It is not worthwhile to relentlessly impose disquieting imagery on people who might be grieving, triggered or ill.

My friends Todd and Cynthia Kelly own Kelly Nursery. They cannot escape the mural going up on the old Pepper Distillery, and they dislike the mural immensely. The image is, in my opinion, a lame, vaguely violent advertisement for the artist, and a mild advocation for illegal graffiti (some of which I like).

Others see allusion to gangs, while still others think the piece is great. What is certain is that the Kellys had no input regarding what amounts to the decoration of a wall of their office, where they spend six or more days a week. So, what are my two friends who'll have to work below this ego trip? Collateral damage in some war on uncoolness?

I love that art is free to be dark and challenging. But it is delusional to think art must be forced upon the public to work its magic. Most folks just want to get home to rest.

Guernica, one of the great political paintings of all time, is in a museum, where people make a choice to see it. The dark image on Manchester Street may or may not be great art (I cannot say), but it is meant to disrupt. And to thrust it daily into the lives of citizens, against their will, is ugly.

I don't advocate removing these murals by legislation. I do suggest not all art works are the same. When it comes to seriously divisive permanent work, the decision of when and whether to witness ought to belong to the viewer, not the owner of the canvas.

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