Monday, April 4, 2011

Bridging the Gap?

Bridging the Gap

By Tom Wachunas

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”
- Rudyard Kipling –

Except, of course, in the NFL. Kelli Young’s April 4 front-page article in The Repository cites downtown Canton’s dearth of visual football-ness amid the “…buoyant sculptures, coupled with some 40 other pieces of art, four art galleries, 22 artist studios and Friday night parties…” While it’s true that the revitalization of downtown Canton over the past several years owes much to its greatly-heralded arts ‘Renaissance,’ the article reminds us that “…some residents wonder, shouldn’t Canton finally capitalize on its national identity as the cradle of professional football?”

The upshot of Young’s reportage is that considerations of new visual projects that would communicate and celebrate Canton’s “football lineage” have been in the air for years. After reading the article, my sense is that there have been lots of fumbled balls and dropped passes in that regard, and certainly no remarkably significant scoring in the red-zone of downtown Canton.Yet. Robb Hankins, president and CEO of ArtsinStark, is aware that it’s a hot-button issue, observing in the article that, “There is a kind of roaring debate going on in the arts community about should we do public art around a football theme, or is Canton already football-saturated?” You might recall (as does the article) Hankins’ 2009 idea for installing 15 “jaw-dropping” football-themed public artworks, an idea which is currently being “tweaked.” This is hopefully good news, if for no other reason than that the thought walking out of a downtown business into an oversized pair of bronze athlete’s hands, rising from a sidewalk and reaching for an imaginary pass, is more silly (and nightmarish?) than tastefully commemorative.

It seems to me that the divisive nature of this “issue” is not really so much about arts community versus everybody else (which includes those “some residents” who would like to see more evidence of Canton’s football legacy). It’s about a town hungry for, indeed desperate for, an identity of the sort that would make it a desirable, reasonably entertaining, and sustainable destination for both residents and visitors. There is certainly every reason to believe that public art can – and does - contribute to nurturing and advertising that identity. And to be fair and frank - as a citizen, artist, and commentator - I think downtown Canton has more than enough contemporary “buoyant sculptures” and painted trash cans posing as attractive public art. Canton is many things to many people, certainly. In our local culture seeking to proclaim an integrated, dynamic identity, it’s both arrogant and needlessly adversarial to reject out-of-hand the idea of public art honoring our contribution to the world of sports.

I’m reminded that the ancient Greeks, among others, got it right when it came to fostering astonishingly beautiful public art and architecture that was a collectively harmonious declaration of an entire culture, embracing ALL its beloved pursuits – intellectual, spiritual, scientific, and yes, athletic. Not that we’ll ever approach anything even close to the nobility and glory of classical Athens, but the last thing Canton needs, downtown or elsewhere, is another architectural fiasco like that red-orange monstrosity of a bridge that spans I-77 at Belden Village (pictured here). Regardless of our passion for sports one way or the other, it’s more a garish embarrassment than any memorable declaration of pride in the National Football Hall of Fame. I continually wonder about the depth of experience, and qualifications in aesthetic matters, of those who oversee the content, placement, frequency, and distribution of the public art works we encounter around here. Do we have the visionary decision-makers in place who can consistently foster public art of unquestionable quality and repute, art that is important and relevant not just to Canton’s history and interests, but inspiring to all who see it? A tall, maybe even impossible order, to be sure.

Still, whoever they are, or are yet to be, we can nevertheless hope they will aspire to exercising reasonable balance and moderation in this challenging endeavor. In presenting (for both local and national attention) a vision of what we in Canton hold as most fair and indicative of our overall cultural accomplishments and pursuits, a heroic statue of Jim Thorpe in Central Plaza, for example, is still somewhat more preferable than another rusting animal.

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