D.C.’s latest public art serves neither art nor the public.
Illustrations by Robert Meganck
About the fiberglass donkeys and elephants, as about so many things, the D.C. Statehood Green Party was both perfectly correct and hopelessly wrong. The Greens were right to try to block the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities from launching its “Party Animals” project, purely on free-speech grounds.
The commission’s project is to spread 100 donkey statues and 100 elephant statues, decorated by various artists, around the District. Hence the title. Pretending, as the commission does, that the famous party mascots are neutral symbols of the city is simply a lie. The roster of works includes Grand Old Pachyderm, Dancing Democrats, Potus Democratus, and Potus Republicantus. That the Greens failed to stop the two-party show with a lawsuit says more about the prejudices of the U.S. District Court than about the merits of their case. “We lost because the judge didn’t really consider the impact of what was going on,” Greens attorney Jim Klimaski says.
Where the Greens were wrong was in insisting that their own party emblem, the sunflower, should be incorporated into the project. Stopping the project was the right idea for the party dedicated to defending D.C.’s autonomy; begging to join it was a mistake.
The Party Animals, which are now spreading through the city one four-animal truckload at a time, already made their debut, en masse, in a preview exhibition at the former Woodward & Lothrop building. It was not encouraging.
The overwhelming impression, in the gloom of the Woodies building, was of monotony. There are only so many things you can do with a 4-foot-tall fiberglass animal. Three things, really: You can treat it like a wall and paint a mural on it, you can glue something decorative to its surface, and you can dress it up as something else. There may be other artistic options—smash it to rubble with a sledgehammer, put it in a galvanized trough and invite passers-by to urinate on it—but those lie outside the scope of the project.
The finished products are a testament to the limitations of animal art. A large share of the specimens simply got painted sky blue on top, with a landscape below. There are paintings of monuments and cherry blossoms; there are at least two images of the Statue of Liberty, geography notwithstanding. A donkey covered with ADC map pages; a donkey covered with Metro maps. There is a donkey in Spanish armor, with a white beard. It had no tag in the preview, but to judge from the master list, it could have been Donkexote, Don Quixote w/monuments, DonkeyXote, or Donkey Ote. The Washington Post has sponsored a donkey, on which an artist has painted pandas. You could probably read something into that one, if you tried.
Conformity is the whole point of the exercise. The fad for peppering a city’s streets with standardized sculptures seems to have begun in Zurich in 1998, with statues of cows. The cow concept jumped the Atlantic to Chicago, then spread to other cities, diversifying as it went, filling various other towns with pigs, horses, dogs, and fish. Some places now incorporate licensed characters: Peanuts figures in St. Paul, Minn.; giant Mr. Potato Heads all over Rhode Island. It has become one of those things that cities do just because other cities are doing it, like having everyone read the same book at once—or building a convention center, or luring a major-league baseball team. Cities are like
seventh-graders that way.
And like seventh-graders, they’re copying dumb ideas. This thing started with cows, and cows aren’t interesting. They merely represent humor, the way cross-dressers and Jay Leno do, without actually being funny. Other animals, in turn, were just limp copies of cows. Only Chicago seems to have breathed any life into the concept; after its first, bovine go-round, the Windy City repeated the exercise with fiberglass living-room sets—replicas of couches, chairs, and TVs set up on the sidewalks. The artists played with space, and the public sat on the art. Viewers were engaged.
The Party Animals offer no such engagement. You can’t hop in a donkey painted like a taxi, and you can’t eat an elephant painted like a watermelon.
Only a few of the works seem to carry any political weight. One is a donkey so thoroughly wrapped in red, white, and blue marine cord as to be a blank, puffy, donkey-shaped bundle. It’s called Party Lines. Its creator, Joseph Barbaccia, says his piece was meant to suggest the muffling and constricting effects of party loyalty—while still being pleasant to look at and patriotically colored. It was not meant as a commentary on “Party Animals” itself, though Barbaccia says that the project did have “more limitations than I usually allow myself to have.”
“I think it was important that the Green Party said something,” Barbaccia says. The lawsuit, he says, ended up being “a very important part of the project.”
Yet mostly, the project is a triumph of critic-proofing. Just inside the doors of Woodies, there was one elephant decorated by the Pediatric Hematology, Oncology, Blood, and Marrow Transplantation Center at Georgetown University Medical Center. The suffering children were invited to scrawl their wishes on little tiles: “I wish no child would have to suffer with cancer.” “I wish shots didn’t hurt.” “I wish for NO more surgerys.”
It seems impolite to argue with cancer-stricken children. Even so, who needs this? New Yorkers erupted at the prospect of following other cities’ example and having a municipal reading bee. New York doesn’t read today’s books; it writes and edits tomorrow’s books.
The Gothamites were being hicks, but some things are worth being hicks about. Washington, D.C., doesn’t need more mass installations of feel-good public art. With its actual residents squeezed into the spaces left over from the creation of the People’s House, the Nation’s Front Lawn, the Nation’s Attic, and monuments to every war the United States has ever fought, this city is one big work of feel-good public art.
And now here come 200 painted animals to further colonize your neighborhood. There’s only one exception to the feel-good theme: Florida Hybrid, by Baltimore artist Laure Drogoul, who hacked the legs off an elephant, reshaped its ears into butterfly wings, and painted it yellow. Against the yellow background, she has reproduced pages of a lepidoptery text—and copies of the notorious “butterfly ballot” of Palm Beach County, Fla.
With that, all the assumptions behind “Party Animals” come rudely crashing down. Politics is not neutral, and it is not a feel-good enterprise. Thanks to the D.C. arts commission, there will be 100 Republican elephants, marching across a city that’s routinely humiliated by the GOP majority in the House, a city that saw its airport change names because Grover Norquist and Bob Barr wanted it changed. It’s not too late to get out the hammers. Art is, after all, the interaction between text and reader.
If the Greens were wise, they would scrape up some funding, secure the necessary permits, and put up 100 replica voting booths around the city, suitably decorated. Or better yet, put up a rival show without a theme at all. Give two or three dozen artists grants to put up whatever sculpture they see fit. Forget the public art project, and let the public make some art. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Robert Meganck.