Marja-Leena Rathje
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no more plastic bears

The ongoing fashion for cute, unoriginal and downright kitschy public art fauna continues to make me peevish, as I voiced here on July 9th , July 13th and July 17th of 2004 . And I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Jenn Farrell has written an excellent article for Vancouver's The Tyee called Pack up the Plastic Spirit Bears - There's got to be a better way to handle public art and charity. Here's an excerpt, and please do read the entire article for the many valid points made.

But Richard Tetrault, a Vancouver artist and muralist, believes that the spirit bear project demonstrates a lack of trust in artists' own work, and instead forces them to produce something "cute and frivolous." "Take something that's a template, that's really hard to work with," he says, "then give artists all these conditions about not making any political or social statements...then strain all that out and see what they can come up with.

The lack of a real art legacy in Vancouver bothers him and many other artists. "There are all these issues, substantial things that can be expressed in content in public art, a tremendous untapped dimension that we aren't even tapping," laments Tetrault. Another artist, who, because of his contribution to the spirit bear project, asked not to be named, expressed similar feelings. "Why does art for the masses have to be such pablum? I don't want to see the same thing over and over, just these different variations on the same thing. I want to see things that are different and controversial, that make people think."

Marja-Leena | 19/10/2006 | 11 comments
themes: Culture


The US is over-run with this kinda garbage. Chicago did cows, St. Louis did people (one person created a Harry Potter on a broomstick oh how original), New Mexico decorated violins, California did bears. Even in Montana, there was a similiar program with fiberglass Bison statues (this was incredibly boring). They always turn-out sub-par and typically the artist that creates the most kitsch in their own work has the most favorable finished public art project. I'm not sure if it says much about our "audience", but it definately makes a scary statement regarding our government arts officials.

I feel like I should have an opinion on this, but I really don't. I mean, the arguments on each side seem equally reasonable to me. Is the cause of authentic poetry harmed by the promulgation of bad greeting-card verse? Well, maybe. But poetry, like fine art, is so poorly taught in the schools, and our society is so anti-intellectual, that I can't think that banning greeting-card verse would do much more than make a lot of people very unhappy.

Don't get me wrong: almost everything about kitsch, mass production and the mis-use of public space is deeply irritating to me. It's one thing that keeps me holed up here on the mountain sometimes for weeks at a stretch, I think -- it's the only way to avoid a spiritually and aesthetically oppressive avalanche of kitsch.

Daniel, the way some of the "audience" laps up the stuff just reveals their lack of knowledge of what is and isn't art. Your post about cowboy art kind of fits the subject too. But feeding them this pablum isn't going to teach them otherwise, is it?

Dave, you make a good point about greeting cards, but I'm with you about all the kitsch eveywhere. Somehow as artists, I wish we could educate the public to appreciate the difference. if city official would only let us. It's tough slogging against the prevailing mass culture of advertising and over-consumption of cheap useless throwaway junk. Yes, it really is all about education, or the lack of it - another big peeve of mine.

Now, here's a great example of opinions that kinda irks me too. The bovine affair (full size plastic cows) on display all over 'cowtown.' One placed on the front steps of historic city hall with the name 'Daisy' printed on a card and hanging on the neck with a tow-truck chain. First, its not art. Second, cows don't have coaster wheels to get around. Third, I've never met a man named Daisy. Then pandamania, the brainchild of a lifeless PR person at the cowtown Zoo when the real 'living' Panda bears came for a visit - extra admission of 5 bucks above the 15 dollar adult admission. Commonly called a 'money-grab.' The only benefit from the bovine project that was worthwhile is the money donated to a local shelter for battered women from the auction that took place to get rid of these pieces of trash. Hell, in cowtown, why not the real thing? Simple, who's going to clean up the pies left behind! It also raises another thought - why do cowboys where BIG belt buckles? They think that's a symbolic work of art. I'm going with you all the way on this one ML so moooove over and make room for me. How do you like your steak cooked - I'm well done. No extra charge for 'mad-cow' disease. Only in Canada eh! "Pity"

Roger, wow! You've got some very strong feelings about your town Calgary being "cowed"! Glad you've joined the club - now how do we stop the continuing madness that has hit so many cities around the world?

I very much agree with all of you on this, and feel very similar to Dave about not really having a strong opinion on this, but you know, we've been doing this kind of thing since the beginning of our time on Earth. We look back now at many of the primitive art forms out there and a lot of it really does show a deep connection with nature. However, there is also a lot of cultural stuff that passes for a "spiritual connection" to wild animals, stuff that, if you see it from the point of view of the animals or plants, is totally destructuve to them or, at the very least, creates only imagined or stereotypical images of them. Take, for example, the Bolivian Indians' ritual of capturing a condor and forcing it to be dragged through the streets as the community celebrates its yearly condor festival, or the bear deity (their most important god) ritual of the non-Japanese Ainu's in northern Japan, a people who supposedly have a very respectful outlook on nature, in which they torment a brown bear until it dies. Even the bullfighting customs of Spain and France and Mexico, or the rodeo of the US, all try to justify what they do by talking of a natural connection between the animals and the participants. As to images, look what the traditional "knowledge" of animals and "spiritual connection" to them did to wolves (evil beasts), bats (evil beasts), snakes (almost universally reviled, if not then made to perform), the birds of Hawai'i (many decimated by the spiritual need to create royal robes), rhinoceri (the Chinese think of them as magical creatures with healing properties), the North American bald eagle (almost decimated in the lower 48 until recently), and on and on. A lot of people think they are doing good by the animals, but the animals never asked for what they get, nor is it in their nature to behave as or participate in or even just "seem" like what we imagine them to be. No matter how quaint or "deep" we try to call our behavior and thinking, the truth is that we are a cruel and self-serving species, often with very little, if any, understanding of the world around us. Making our projections into what we call art does not mean we understand anything better. And perhaps that's the difference between the kitsch and true art. True art does try to understand and to respect. And that is what we need to be teaching children about the Earth more than anything else. But to do that the artists themselves need to change their perceptions and understanding of the world around us. I don't believe you can make any kind of honest art about bears if you know nothing about bears. If you do it is just conjecture and stereotype. And if the whole purpose of what you do is to emphasize our connection to the natural world, then it behooves you to learn more about what you are trying to say, and then to be honest about how you show it.

Dave, I am just like you about wanting to flee all the kitch and pablum. Whenever I get away to the mountains or the sea it is always agony to come back to Tokyo, the capitol of kitsch and "kawaii". What's so frustrating is the sheer numbers of people around me who have no idea what I get so worked up about. But that's our world today. We have millions and millions of people who spend their whole lives living in cities, with almost no exposure to how the natural processes of the planet work, and yet we expect this population to somehow, miraculously come to an understanding of how to save the planet from environmental destruction. We haven't even started on the same page...

Blimey, I guess I did have an opinion after all!

Butuki, thank you for your honest and very thoughtful input. What you write is very true of our world. It seems to me that those who live near the animals, like the Inuit and some of the First Nations like the Haida, show a deep spiritual connection to the animals in their best art.

Don't you think that when artists willingly participate in decorating these plastic bears, cows, orcas, penguins, etc., that they are hurting their own reputations and revealing a lack of understanding for the true nature and beauty and significance of the animals? I agree with your point that the city artists usually would not know what a real bear is like. Of course, one could say that they are merely reflecting the society they really live in, a society full of kitsch they've also contributed to, not what it should be.

And blimey, heh heh, you DO have an opinion and I'm glad you've shared it, butuki.

OOOOOOOOOO ya! You bet ML - Cowtown has become a haven for trashy artists. Now, to answer your question. Take two valium and have a Bud Light to wash em down. Just make sure you're near a bed or the toilet. Damn, I love getting excited about our real-life experiences - it makes me OOOOZE just reading all the opinions. I like 'poking the bag' sometimes too.

Seattle had Pigs on Parade. Artists were invited to decorate the giant pigs however they wanted, the pigs were displayed around the city for a while (during tourist season, natch), and the pigs were then auctioned off. I'm not really sure where the money went from the auction.

What really annoys me is the amount of press this inane project got, and how many tourists and locals were running around town to have their pictures taken with as many of the pigs they could find. We have some fantastic pieces of art (and some pathetic ones too) on public display around Seattle - mostly you hear the ignorant snide comments about them. Yet as soon as an artist wants to exhibit something controversial (political/moral/nude) in public, there's a great hullaballoo about it. I guess people are so used to being taught to color inside the lines and regurgitate the junk that's fed to them in the public school system, that for a large part, kids grow into adults that can't appreciate art, or can't stomach artists (writers/etc.) who aren't afraid to speak their own minds.

I also want to respond to Butuki: I don't really feel that decorating large plastic effigies is on the same level as the cutural 'traditions' you wrote about. These are plastic or fiberglass statues, not real animals. There is no 'spiritual' connection to the plastic animals. It's just a gimmic to raise money for some cause. They may as well host giant bake sales.

Jackie, thank you for understanding what I've been saying! Once again, it boils down to education, hmm?