I visited Baltimore on Thursday, and checked out Mount Vernon Place. It's a historic area of the city, with four rectangular parks, arranged around a towering marble monument to George Washington.
On Thursday, the parks were fenced off, as if the area was under construction -- but the chain-link fences were apparently made of gold. I thought this was a rather nice way to cordon off a construction area, but given the tony look of the surrounds, it didn't seem entirely outside the realm of possibility that a homeowners' group in such a neighborhood would require this of its contractors.
Then I saw the words "Rich Kid's Art" formed by green plastic cups inserted into the spaces of the fence. It turns out that these fences were the art installation, the work of Lee B. Freeman, a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Freeman spray painted the fences in gold, and then used them to close the park to the public. His idea was to help the public see and appreciate the park-- by denying them access to it. As Baltimore Sun reporter Abigail Tucker writes:
"Though Freeman's fence would only stand for two weeks of that time, he hoped to raise questions about "the temporary nature of space," he said, and "to celebrate" the historic park by holding it hostage around the start of spring. "I wanted to help people see something beautiful," he explained." (See some photos of the project here.)
Freeman, Tucker goes on to write, received permission and permits for the project from the Department of Transportation, the Department of Recreation and Parks and the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. The advance permission, however, didn't matter much once the parks were closed off. Area residents, particularly dog walkers, hated, absolutely hated the project.
Freeman was derided as a brazy bratty New Yorker rich kid (by people who are by no means poor, I might add). He was actually spat on by one passer-by. But more crushing to the artist was having to remove one fence section from each of the park's squares to re-open public access to the park after just one week. Unintended consequence: this destabilized the fences, which caused some of them to collapse under high winds that night. A vandal who removed bolts from the fence also didn't help the fence's integrity.
In any event, the fences are all coming down today. The Sun covered the installation's controversy extensively and admirably, and its arts blog, Critical Mass, attracted passionate reader response, which I've read with great fascination. Public art installations often attract controversy, and I usually find myself on the side of the artist. It's my inclination in this situation as well, I mean, this park was to be closed down for only two weeks! And art is supposed to provoke, and this art installation certainly accomplished that task.
At the same time, I keep thinking of this guy who sat in front of me on my flight home from Mumbai last week. He reclined his chair the moment he sat down before taking off (against the rules!) and wrapped his big puffy hands around his headrest, grasping "my" TV screen. How I resented this intrusion into my space, seethingly so. I contemplated violence against his fingers -stabbing them with my pen --although of course I didn't do it. But this was my little space for 16 hours and I didn't want this guy's hands in it.
That was just 16 hours, not two weeks, and there was no artistic intent in my meaty-handed tormentor. But does the intent really matter if you feel like something that's yours is being taken away from you without your permission?
And on the other hand (no pun intended!), if we only allow ourselves to be provoked with advance permission, is that provocation at all? Can we only tolerate art when we've invited it?