Joseph Rastovich | The Value of Public Art

Joseph Rastovich | The Value of Public Art

Many people think the purpose of art is to be beautiful, and while aesthetics are important, I also contend the purpose of art has a deeper value. Art is here to encourage discourse and exploration of our own understandings. We can use art to communicate such things as the cost of war and remind ourselves of the larger story. Art can interact with abstract elements like gravity and space like nothing else.
Just like the human experience, art is a diverse medium of engagement.

It is things like poetry, music, performance, food, visual art and architecture which soften the hard and linear edges of civilization.

Art is the catalyst which breathes life into an otherwise mechanical society. Art communicates at a level which nothing else can compare. Yet art – with its unquantifiable nature – is often an afterthought in our education system. What would happen if creativity was our foundational education?

As a large scale sculptor, I am one of those people who live outside the usual institutionalized life. Each day is potently unique, consisting of a paradox of diligent hard work and mercurial freedom. Since I continuously flow through the art world, I’d like to explain the value of public art.

We lift our gaze when we encounter a sculpture upon our path. For a moment, we are shaken awake from autopilot and see the world with the curious eyes of a child. I believe our most valuable currency is our attention to the present. But this finite resource is often stolen by our own worries about the future, dwelling on the past and addiction to artificial realities. As a child, life is lived in the moment where everything is experienced for the first time. Art and culture brings us back to that state of supreme curiosity and presence. Art is a speed bump in our daily hustle, giving us an opportunity to use all our senses to appreciate the world around us.

After we stay with an art piece for a while, the deeper symbolism reveals itself – like how animals surface once we pause silently in the wilderness. Art communicates in ways nothing else can. I compare consciousness to an onion cut in half with the outer layers being governed by logic, the middle layers consisting of feelings, and the deepest layers being intuition. I believe art in its many forms accesses the deeper layers of our being. This can be witnessed by the way thought dissolves during dance. The way instrumental music moves us to tears. The way sculptures become vessels holding our memories and mythology.

The wildness of nature and art is the foundation of its medicine.

As with all democratic conversation, public art often has controversy and contention. The usual criticism is about “superfluously spending taxpayer money”, but most of my public sculptures have been funded by private donations. And even with percent-for-the-arts programs levied by many cities and states, it is a small investment for something which raises the quality of life for an entire city for generations to come. Often the most valuable things in life cannot be quantified.

Let’s take a look at three contemporary public sculptors: Alexander Calder, Richard Serra and Maya Lin. These artists create environmental sculptures which is a genre of sculptures with enough gravity and scale to create their own environment that a person can immerse themselves within.

Alexander Calder was the son of two professional artists and was born in 1898. He was the first to create “mobiles” which are balanced contraptions with botanically inspired counterweights that catch subtle wind currents to give organic, lifelike movement. He also invented wire sculpture or “three dimensional drawing”. His iconic sculptures are recognizable with their intersecting organic curves in primary red, black and blue. In the 1970’s his work was criticized as not being worthy of fine-art discourse because of its simplicity. It was disregarded as too “popular” to be considered seriously. Thankfully his popularity outlived the criticism. Like many artists, Calder was also political. He refused the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 to protest the Vietnam War, marched in protests against the war, created anti-war posters and advertised in The New York Times saying, “Reason is Not Treason.”

Richard Serra was born in 1938. His father worked as a foreman in a steel mill – which helps us understand where he got inspiration for the unrealistically heavy plates he installs. Serra’s minimalist work may be mistaken as something other than sculpture. It is reminiscent of the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey; at once foreboding, profound, mysterious and captivating. The fact that a simple rectangle can illicit such deep feelings is a testament to the power of art and form.

The sheer gravity of the thick steel draws us near as the Earth keeps the moon. As we walk into the undulating folds, we enter a meditative space where the density of iron quiets the outside world and the lack of external stimulus quiets the internal mind in reverence.

One of his pieces titled “Terminal” at the Bochran Train Station was criticized as being an impediment to foot traffic – which is the primary value of sculpture – and was put into storage for 20 years before being installed again. But his most controversial piece, “Tilted Arc”, was located in Federal Plaza in New York City: a 120′ long, 12′ tall, 2.5” thick slightly curved steel plate tilted at a slight angle. Nearby office workers complained about it being an eyesore and oppressive and eventually it was removed and destroyed despite a public forum being two thirds in support of keeping it. Unfortunately the people requesting its removal failed to realize that art is not just about beauty but about engaging space and inquiry.

Maya Lin was also born to professional artists in 1959 and was awarded the contract to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial when she was  21 years old. Much like Serra’s work, Lin’s concept was regarded by some people as too foreboding and abstract compared to the usual memorial sculptures which invariably show larger-than-life colonels in heroic poses. Her well-known war memorial made of polished stone reminds us of the weight of war through the dark reflection of ourselves looking back through the names of those who lost their lives.

Almost 40 years later she is currently creating her “last” memorial called the Confluence Project which “connects [people] to the history, living cultures, and ecology of the Columbia River system through Indigenous voices.” This ecological based memorial is close to her heart. Maya Lin’s environmental philosophy is evident when she says, “One species absolutely doesn’t have the right to overrun the planet,” and, “Throughout my work I’ve tried to reveal aspects of the natural world that you may not be thinking about.” One of the pieces in the Confluence Project honors Celilo Falls on the the Columbia River bordering both Washington and Oregon which was home to the oldest continuous native settlement in North America. This highly revered waterfall was erased after the backwaters of The Dalles dam flooded it and destroyed salmon runs. Sculptures like Lin’s remind us of the past and how it relates to our present and future. They are a reminder of our interconnection and stories that have shaped humanity.

These sculptors’ artwork shows how the purpose of art transcends conventional beauty. This philosophy applies to other creative avenues. Whereas dance usually connotes uplifting grace, there is also Japanese Butoh dance which manifested from the horrors experienced during the atomic bombing in World War 2; a dance which poetically illustrates distress and pain. Likewise while bitter tastes are avoided in our regular go-to diet, it is these tannic flavors which signify the presence of healing compounds and aid digestion. I believe a world of happy major scale music without melancholic minor chords would be an incomplete world. Ironically, it is the melancholic songs which give us most comfort during our own times of sadness and loss. Life is made up of both love and heartbreak songs. Art in its varied forms speaks to the dichotomy of existence. Birth and death. Pleasure and pain. Manifest and abstract.

I believe “magic” is synonymous with beauty. This includes the feeling when we watch the peach and rose colored skies of billowing clouds during sunset, listen to the songs of meadowlarks and feel the lush green growth of spring. But the fiery colors of autumn leaves, sun-etched wrinkles on elders’ skin, and entropy as honored in wabi sabi aesthetic is just as beautiful. There is a tendency to focus on “positive”, pleasant and delicious things like rainbows and cupcakes, but I see there is also beauty in the opposite.

Calder, Serra and Lin show us a holistic art form. Where beauty is unexpected and engages all aspects of our experience, the light and the shadow.