In 1969 architect James Wines coined the term "plop art" to describe the lame abstract sculpture being installed on sterile corporate plazas. The clever usage, punning "pop art" with scatology, caught on. Wines felt that abstraction had become the new academic style and hoped for more adventurous choices in public art. Those who never liked contemporary art's guts in the first place appropriated the term, too. "Plop art" was used to deride Richard Serra's Tilted Arc (left), an innovative, site-specific piece whose placement frustrated those whose work required them to trudge across this specific "site" daily.
Intentional or not, LAPD Chief William J. Bratton recalled Wines' witticism when he likened Peter Shelton's new sixbeaststwomonkeys (detail, top) to "some kind of cow splat." It's become the latest public art cause celebre, rating an 1126-word defense of Shelton by the LA Times' Christopher Knight and a 786-word rebuttal to Knight's article by the ubiquitous Donald Frazell. (Frazell to Knight: "OK CK, this is war.")
One point on which essentially everyone agrees is that public art is a unique medium. Its priorities are distinct from those of the less public art of museums and galleries. There are two main approaches to public art. One is to please art-lovers and minimize offense to everyone else; the other is to please everyone else and minimize offense to art-lovers.
Like Tilted Arc, sixbeaststwomonkeys embodies the first approach. Shelton is a serious artist with a serious following. That isn't to say that everyone who likes serious art likes Shelton. Art doesn't work that way. However, one gathers that most of the Shelton-haters wouldn't have been any happier with a Robert Therrien. They don't like contemporary art, period. Probably they don't spend much time contemplating Claus Sluter, either.
The second conception of public art is that it should please the public. The problem with that is that it's near-impossible to please a public that doesn't care about art in the first place. (The Dodgers can't do much for people who hate baseball.) Sarasota, Florida, is agonizing over this paradigm. Sculptor and Johnson & Johnson heir J. Seward Johnson has created a 26-foot-high polychrome piece, "Unconditional Surrender," (right) based on the famous black-and-white Alfred Eisenstaedt news photo, "The Kiss." Johnson's sculpture was installed at a prominent location in Sarasota, sparking an effort to raise money to buy it for permanent display. The donors tended to be wealthy WW II vets who'd retired to the region. The haters were Sarasota's also-considerable art community, who find the Johnson piece embarrassing. So far, the pro-Johnson claque has been unable to raise the $675,000 price tag — more than the $500,000 of public money that paid for LA's Shelton.
There's little question that sixbeaststwomonkeys is a prime example of what Shelton does. The question is whether Shelton has failed as a public artist by offending Bratton (as he indisputably has). The Times' Steve Lopez wrote that Bratton drove by the installation, then walked by it to see whether "it's as ugly up close as it is when you're driving by." According to Lopez, "The answer was yes, and he sounded mad enough to have the artist arrested."
Of course, Bratton is one person. If every average Joe and Jane comes to hate sixbeaststwomonkeys in perpetuity, then Shelton has failed as a public artist, no question. It's way too soon to conclude that. How many of the complainers have seen the work or ever will see it? How many are seconding a populist sentiment without reflecting whether they truly give a damn — about sixbeaststwomonkeys or any art?