Public Art: Sense Not Taste

CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver raises questions about how officials funding public art develop their standards. An archive of The Braver Line is available. Rita Braver's email address is
Wow, suddenly everybody has an opinion about art. There is the "Yes, it can be elephant dung on the Virgin Mary" view espoused by officials of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

There is the "Not with my money it can't" rejoinder by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

And of course there's the "I don't like it either but I wouldn't dream of offending the arts community because I expect they'll all vote for me" response of first lady and probable Giuliani Senate opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton.

You're probably reading this from another planet if this is the first you've heard about a huge controversy over an art exhibition at the Brooklyn museum.

Even people who don't live in New York and aren't running for office have been arguing about this one. And of course it's not the first time that Americans have had to grapple with whether or not public money should be spent on art, and if so, under what conditions.

A few years back I had to do a story on another art controversy, involving a film partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. The movie had a homoerotic theme, and conservatives in Congress were threatening to kill the endowment's budget because of the grant.

After viewing the film, here's what I decided: You can't put strings on government money for the arts. It just can't work that way. But I was sorry that taxpayer money had gone into the movie, not because of the subject matter, but because I thought it was tedious and boring.

"What were these grant giver-outers thinking?" I wondered. "Don't they have good sense?"

I haven't had a chance to visit the Brooklyn exhibit, but I've sure watched a lot of video and read a lot stuff about it, and it seems to me that the "Don't they have good sense?" question may apply here, too.

After all, you can just walk around the streets of New York and enjoy all the degenerate stuff you could ever hope to find. You don't need to enshrine it in a museum.

I happen to be particularly sensitive to the subject of how scarce public money should be spent on art because I recently spent a day goofing around New York City with architect Hugh Hardy.

And I had a chance to see some public art that made my heart sing. Now Hardy would probably argue that there should never be conditions on what a museum can show or what an artist can create.

And I'm sure that he and I agree that Giuliani is the last person who should be allowed to become an art czar. But Hardy himself appears to subscribe to the "good sense" theory of art.

Just take a walk through Bryant Park, behid the New York Public Library. A few years back it was a haven for drug dealers. Hardy helped plan a new, revitalized park that cost the city some $6 million.

Sure he could have suggested giant sculptures of syringes and other paraphernalia in keeping with the park's recent historic past, but he opted for bistro chairs, a charming café and lush plantings.

The park is now filled with mothers and babies, executives on work breaks, retirees, young lovers and, yes, enough homeless people so that you never forget you're still in New York.

And keep your eye on Bridgemarket, the area now being renovated under the 59th Street Bridge. There's a wonderful vaulted space there, originally designed as a market in the 1900s, but off limits to the public for much of the century.

After 12 long years, Hardy has convinced the city to let him design shops and restaurants and yet another park on taxpayer-owned property.

Sure he could have advocated turning the area into a museum of pornography, to celebrate one of the city's true life, gritty realities, but I don't think the thought ever occurred to him.

Public art is important. It is a legacy that our society leaves to the generations to follow. Yes, some of you will now be screaming at your computer, "But remember how they laughed at the Impressionists?" or "Remember how no one would buy a Van Gogh?"

Or "Remember how long it took Picasso to catch on?" But to you defenders of the Brooklyn museum show, I can say only that, if future generations come to revere a decomposing shark as great art, I'm glad I won't be around to find out.

To find out more about the exhibit, read "Dung Hits The Fan In NYC."