Our Right to Demand Clean Air and Good Quality Art

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The enthusiastic response to last week's program about the daring art installation "Stations of the Cross" at San Gabriel's Church of Our Saviour made me think about how much of contemporary art is experienced by us outside of museum and gallery walls. The problem is that most of the art we may encounter in restaurants, in hotels, in theatre lobbies or in doctors' offices is rather mediocre, to put it mildly. I wonder how all these places would be perceived if the quality of art there was improved. Everyone knows what happens to your body when you eat nothing but junk food. Now think about all the bad art that is ingested through our eyes while we're in these public places. Imagine the damage it does to our collective psyche.

My goal as an art critic has always been to find and to praise the most interesting recent artistic developments or to speak the truth when I feel that it's been obfuscated. On occasion, I receive an email from a listener alerting me to art seen in unexpected places, read about in local newspapers or debated at conferences organized by professionals outside the art world. Now, I want to ask you, my listeners: Let me know if you've seen in the public arena some very appealing artwork or encountered an especially dreadful one. That's how I learned about the existence of the Episcopal Church in San Gabriel and the unusual art exhibit there.

Sometimes it seems that art is everywhere. Last year I was invited to a psychoanalytical conference discussing the subject of art and psychoanalysis. This week I will be moderating at USC's Fisher Gallery a panel discussion titled When Art and Medicine Converge. And just a few days ago, I discovered a smart magazine named The Creative Spirit: a journal of the arts and faith. There I found an unusually candid article discussing the prevalence of kitsch in so much of the art commissioned for the Christian church today. Written by Lynn Aldrich, a well-known LA sculptor, it reviews an intriguing book I definitely want to read. The book's author is Betty Spackman and it's titled Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch. As chance would have it, the February issue of ARTnews magazine has an article covering a similar subject -- the dearth of quality in the Vatican Museums' Collection of Modern Religious Art. You might remember the traveling exhibition, "Angels of the Vatican," that came to the Hammer Museum several years ago. There were a number of beautiful Old Master paintings, but the 20th century definitely got short shrift.

So let me end today's Art Talk on a positive note. A listener from Canada told me about the truly remarkable monumental sculpture by Richard Serra, recently installed at the Toronto Airport. Go to the KCRW website to see this sculpture, Tilted Spheres, with its inner spaces reminiscent of a Baroque church. And the next time you're in Costa Mesa, check out the gigantic 66-foot-tall sculpture by the ubiquitous Serra installed in front of the Segerstrom Concert Hall. It's audacious, brutal, and at the same time, surprisingly poetic. If only the rest of the artworks in public spaces would aspire to this level of excellence. So let me know about your memorable encounters with art outside of museum and gallery walls, so we can celebrate the best and condemn the worst of it.

When Art and Medicine Converge
March 21, 12 – 1pm
USC Fisher Gallery

Betty Spackman
Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch
Published by Piquant Editions, 2005

Art: It Does Your Body Good
Art Talk, May 2, 2006

Bringing Picasso to the Vatican
ARTnews, February 2007

Pier F is pointing straight to the future by Bill Taylor
Toronto Star: January 27, 2007

Banner image: Richard Serra, Tilted Spheres; Curved steel sculpture, 2002-2004