A July 8 Detroit News article reads like a Monty Python sketch: "Detroit council trashes art created for Paradise Valley." After commissioning three artists to create pieces commemorating the once artistically vibrant area of downtown Detroit — now the site of Comerica Park and Ford Field — council members deemed the works "too abstract" and pulled the plug on their installation.
One can almost hear comedian John Cleese screeching: "Yes, well, that's the sort of blinkered, philistine pig ignorance I've come to expect from you noncreative garbage. You sit there on your loathsome, spotty behinds ... not caring a tinker's cuss for the struggling artist."
This admitted tempest in a teapot is ripe for parody. But underlying this comedy of human foibles is something more poignant — the futility of trusting public officials with questions of aesthetics and arts patronage. Detroit has very real and extremely pressing matters that require the attention of its elected officials. Picking out the draperies for pet projects shouldn't be among them.
While the funds for the decoration of the planned Paradise Valley Cultural and Entertainment District came from a private source, the Kresge Foundation, and are disbursed through Detroit's Sherry Washington Gallery, the bureaucratic entity overseeing the project is the Detroit Economic Growth Association. As part of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., DEGA depends on the Detroit City Council for approval of its plans for the Paradise Valley endeavor.
Paradise Valley in the 1940s and 1950s was Detroit's answer to the Harlem Renaissance. Jazz and blues clubs sprang up. Vocal groups flourished. Internationally renowned artists performed there. Great artists with names most people would recognize, such as John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Detroit's own Lyman Woodard, John Lee Hooker and Jackie Wilson. It was a cultural flowering nurtured by the first of Detroit's major independent record labels, Fortune, and directly lead to the establishment of Motown — founder Barry Gordy's father owned a grocery store at the intersection of St. Antoine and Farnsworth and his son immersed himself in the panoply of the area's music.
A portion of the initial $500,000 Kresge grant was given to artiste provocateur Tyree Guyton, who created what The News described as "a large door." Apparently, this did not sit well with Councilwoman Barbara-Rose Collins, who carped in The News, "We wanted art reflective of Paradise Valley, not reflective of some artist's vision of the universe as it exists in their mind."
Perhaps Collins should be reminded of the wisdom bubbling under the surface of the joke often told in the advertising and publishing industries: "How many artists does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Answer: "Does it have to be a light bulb?"
The News captured another Rose-Collins pip: "I couldn't understand it.... Paradise Valley was not about modern, Picasso-type stuff." Councilman Kwame Kenyatta also piled on the commissioned works, and was quoted by The News that he was disappointed that the art didn't "capture the history and spirit of Paradise Valley."
T'was always thus. In 1817, Congress commissioned four paintings by John Trumball for $32,000. One senator reportedly believed the paintings unworthy of 32 cents. And this is the drawback to any government intervention in the aesthetic realm — there can be no objective standard applied to something for which its appreciation is strictly subjective, as is the case with all non-historically validated art.
This writer has not seen the works in question, but on principle points out that the members of the Detroit City Council weren't elected to serve as art critics when the city they are paid to lead collapses around them.
It brings to mind another Monty Python sketch, where Michelangelo defends the addition of kangaroos, a conjuror and a steel band to an initial iteration of "The Last Supper," commissioned by the pope. When the pope protests, the passionate artist responds: "I tell you what you want, mate. You want a bloody photographer, not a creative artist with some imagination!"
Only this time, it's not funny.
Bruce Edward Walker is communications manager for the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.