Rendering of the current state of the public art program at the Port of San Diego

The Port of San Diego is not historically known for making good decisions related to art. And today they made sure that this reputation was not sullied.  The Board of Commissioners at the Port of San Diego voted 4 to 2 in favor of accepting a permanent copy, to be cast in bronze, of the statue known as “Unconditional Surrender” by Seward Johnson which is to be donated by private interests associated with the Midway Museum. Those donating the piece have a year to raise the nearly one million dollars it will cost to have the fiberglass piece recast in painted bronze. It is a sad day because it again shows, whether in art or not, that if there is one thing you can rely on in San Diego is that monied special interests, especially those related to the military, will always beat out rational arguments made by studied professionals.

 

For the past year, and beyond, the Public Art Committee, which works in an advisory capacity to the Board of Commissioners at the Port of San Diego, and Port curatorial staff have worked hard to develop a curatorial strategy that, if implemented in its full capacity, has the potential to be one of the most dynamic and interesting public art programs in the country.  Because of the Board’s decision “Unconditional Surrender” will be the first piece of the Port’s new collection- despite the fact that the Public Art Committee voted 6 to 4 not to accept it.  It is difficult not to think that the acceptance of this stolen piece of intellectual property, which has gotten off on a technicality, has set the art program and the new curatorial strategy at the Port back a year, if not years or even indefinitely.  Many of the members of the Public Art Committee who went into this past year feeling hopeful that real change was going to take place at the Port’s art program (changes that included requirements that members of the Public Art Committee actually be credentialed arts professionals), now feel that it may be pointless to continue with a Port Board whose majority essentially stated today during deliberations that the fiduciary standards for art in the Port district should be nothing more than oceanside amusements to attract the masses.

Giant balls of twine, eat your heart out:

 

A stolen "Kiss"

 

Below is a letter that I sent to the commissioners this morning.  Additionally, five members of the Public Art Committee (including myself) attended the meeting and read statements against the acceptance of the piece. Two others, who could not attend, sent letters arguing against the piece as well. All of these arguments did everything that you are supposed to do in arguments: cited the Board’s voted upon and approved Curatorial Strategy, argued thoroughly why this work is sub-par and does not meet the Board’s approved standards, referenced precedents, pointed to the derivative nature of the piece, potential problems in its transference to another material, the inability of the donators to raise the money up to this point, and so on.  What is most disturbing in this whole process is that the only argument I can discern that has been levied in favor of the piece is that “it’s popular”.  Well, so is McDonald’s.

Given what this decision implies I think we should be on the look out in case any of the commissioners who voted for this piece, associates of the Midway, or anyone else in favor of this piece ever publish a book.  If they do, I would assume, based on this decision, that they would have no problem with someone resizing it, printing it on a different kind of paper and, as long as it’s popular, selling it as their own work. Maybe that person could co-author with Seward Johnson….

 

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March 5, 2012 

Dear Port Commissioners,

I am a member of the Public Art Committee for the Port of San Diego.  I was in attendance at the last board meeting on February 14, 2012 and am writing to express some concerns regarding “Unconditional Surrender”.  First, I would like to give a brief description of my background so that you can place into context my following comments.  I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Sculpture from the Ohio State University.  This spring I will be awarded a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of California, San Diego with a focus on Multi-Media and Public Culture. I have shown in the Museum of Contemporary Art, The New Children’s Museum, am currently co-curating the Summer Salon Series at the San Diego Museum of Art and was featured in 2010 California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art.  My work has been cited in international publications such as Wired and ArtForum magazines.  Locally I have been involved with the development of multiple art supporting projects and community events including a local art festival, called “There Goes the Neighborhood”, and spent two and a half years as the Lead Art Instructor at St. Madeleine Sophies’s Center, a day program for adults with developmental disabilities.  I am currently an Adjunct Professor at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design in downtown San Diego.

Second, I would like to commend the board on the debate that took place at the meeting on February 14th.  Several times during this deliberation I heard speakers and board members alike make comments or jokes to the effect that they “did not know much about art” etc.  I would say that from the complexity of the argument surrounding this statue, those comments seem self deprecating more than actual.

I fully understand and am in agreement as to why people feel so strongly about what this image stands for in relationship to the original work of art, the photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, and the euphoric historical moment he captured on that day in 1945. This is one of the most publicly meaningful images in our nation’s collective memory.  My concern with “Unconditional Surrender” is that it is so derivative from this original, meaningful, photograph that the work raises ethical issues in regard where, exactly the real meaning of this object comes from (item (e) in the Evaluation Criteria).  I would submit that the popularity and meaningfulness that people are responding to in this work reside in the original work of art, the photograph, and recollection from the original historic moment. Seward Johnson’s statue panders to this memory and to the original work of art in order to produce it’s meaning.  By any artistic standards copying the work of another artist as a shorthand for producing a meaningful object of their own is ethically questionable at best, and potentially legally problematic at worst.  This aspect of the production of the piece also raises issues in regard to other Evaluative Criteria approved by the board, especially in regard to innovation (item (c)).  A work of art cannot be considered innovative if it is simply taking the meaningful work of another artist and replicating it in an over-life-size form.

While in attendance at the meeting on February 14th it was clear from comments made by both speakers and board members, many of whom were in favor of the piece becoming permanent, that acknowledgement of the disputable nature of this object as a quality work of art was duly noted (Evaluation Criteria item (c)).  This aspect of “Unconditional Surrender” has also recently been cited in the press by an article in favor of the work remaining permanent (Union Tribune Feb. 11th 2012 UT Editorial Staff).  If it is acknowledged by even those in favor of it becoming permanent that the quality of the piece is in dispute, then this object does not meet the criteria approved by the board regarding the new Curatorial Strategy.  Removing and/or overlooking quality as a standard sets a dangerous precedent if the goal of the new Curatorial Strategy is to produce a world renowned collection for the Port of San Diego and the city of San Diego as a whole.  I feel strongly that the dismissal of these standards in favor of this object’s popularity ultimately does a disservice to the men and women which this monument hopes to commemorate.  If the questionable nature of quality and innovation of this object are recognized by even those in favor of it remaining on site, I would argue that what is ultimately being endorsed is a policy of acceptable mediocrity in favor of popularity. I do not feel that what the sailor and nurse in the original photograph from 1945 were celebrating with that kiss was, in part, the defense of mediocrity in the public sphere and in individual self expression.

In response to comments made at the meeting that accepting works of this nature does not have a detrimental effect on the cultural community of San Diego as a whole I can say from my experiences being embedded in the artistic community that this is not wholly accurate.  Over the last several years I have seen a significant number of very talented artists migrate out of the city based, in part, on the reputation San Diego has as a place that allows for less than the highest quality works to define it’s cultural identity.  I would also venture to say that in terms of international cultural reputations both Los Angeles and Tijuana are thought of in higher critical terms than San Diego regionally.  I think an internationally acclaimed public art program would be a major step in reversing this image and that the criteria and policies outlined in the new Curatorial Strategy are important steps in defining the standards that will accomplish this goal. While it may be true that it will always be possible to find someone to take a large commission, it seems to me that the ultimate goal should be to attract the most original and most innovative artists possible to produce the most innovative and original works of art.

At this time I would like introduce a case study as an argument for fidelity to the curatorial process that the board approved in the Evaluative Criteria and to the new Curatorial Strategy as a whole.  Anyone who is familiar with the history and controversy surrounding the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C. will be familiar with the overwhelming unpopularity of the proposal when it was awarded with the commission in 1981 by a jury of credentialed arts professionals.  If you are not familiar with this history I would highly suggested looking into it for yourself as it is a dramatic story and a fascinating piece of American history. As this controversy unfolded, activists against the Maya Lin monument advocated for a set of figurative sculptures representing images of striding soldiers to be placed adjacent to the black walled memorial proposed by Lin. While the sentiments of this addition are understandable, this grouping of figurative bronze sculptures placed on site to appease popular demands are now all but forgotten in the national mind, while the black granite wall, so much initially reviled by the general public is now recognized as being, arguably, one of the most significant, critically acclaimed, publicly attended and, most importantly, meaningful monuments of the twentieth century.

One of the basic tenets of living in a free society is the right of individual, unique, self expression.  In no other field is this right more symbolically celebrated than in the arts. The un-creative use of another artist’s work by Seward Johnson to derivatively appeal to the legitimate sentiments of the public cheapens this fundamental tenet.  By endorsing non-innovative work simply because it uses the predictably popular formula of appropriating an image of national sentiment from another artist and simply making it monumentally large trivializes the efforts many people have made to allow such important rights, such as innovative free expression, to exist.  The question I would like to leave you with is this: Shouldn’t the ultimate goal of the Public Art program at the Port of San Diego be about advocating for what gets placed in the public sphere be of the highest artistic excellence as a way of honoring the right of free expression defended by those in public service and so fundamental to a democratic society?

Sincerely,

 

David White
Public Art Committee

 

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