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Walking through Battery Park in New York City last weekend my co-editor and I encountered an interesting display. Hundreds of bamboo poles were stuck in the ground in a nebulous semi-circle. Some leaned to the right while others tottered dangerously to the left. For a moment we were left scratching our heads. What was thing thing we were looking at and was it art?
What came out of our discussion was this idea of intent. We wondered whether the pole structure had been created with a specific aesthetic intent in mind or was just a random conglomeration of materials meant to corral what looked like a community garden within.
We encounter public art in Columbia on a regular basis. Things as small as the mud stencils created by Jesse Graves and Nicolas Lampert for True/False weekend and as large as the publicly funded Percent for Art Short Street Garage project with a budget of $58,000. We encounter these things and appreciate them for brining a jolt of fun or beauty to our daily routine. But what happens when the lines are blurred? The bamboo-structure was visually interesting and intriguing, but it didn’t have the same pull for me as something like a mural or large public sculpture would. There are two factors I think are important here:
Intent: Something becomes art when we can understand its intent. It’s the difference between your kids covering a canvas in one color of paint and Mark Rothko doing it. In my opinion the pole-structure was art if it someone intended for those haphazard bamboo spears planted in the ground as some kind of purposeful piece of art. Otherwise, it’s just a poorly constructed garden fence.
Appreciation: A kind of caveat to the intent argument is appreciation. After all, if we were standing their considering whether those sticks were meant to be something visually interesting, someone did something right. Appreciation allows us to see the beauty in the ordinary things we encounter everyday, whether they were meant to be “art” in the traditional sense or not.
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