|Sean Scully's 'Wall of Light Cubed 2'|
As you may have read, the Art in Embassies program of the U.S. State Department shelled out one million dollars for the artwork depicted above, which will be displayed at the future new U.S. Embassy in London. The new embassy office building will be a work of art in its own right, so I guess we needed exactly the right sculpture to compliment the new building. Why the sculpture costs more than some entire buildings do, I just can't say.
The artwork of Sean Scully, which you can browse on his website, is not something I am qualified to judge, so here is an expert description:
Sean Scully is known for rich, painterly abstractions in which stripes or blocks of layered color are a prevailing motif. The delineated geometry of his work provides structure for an expressive, physical rendering of color, light, and texture. Scully’s simplification of his compositions and use of repetitive forms—squares, rectangles, bands—echoes architectural motifs (doors, windows, walls) and in this way appeals to a universal understanding and temporal navigation of the picture plane. However, the intimacy of Scully’s process, in which he layers and manipulates paint with varying brushstrokes and sensibilities, results in a highly sensual and tactile materiality. His colors and their interactions, often subtly harmonized, elicit profound emotional associations. Scully does not shy away from Romantic ideals and the potential for personal revelation. He strives to combine, as he has said, “intimacy with monumentality.”
I think I'm starting to see it ... yes ... intimacy combined with monumentality ... abstract, geometric, repetitive, and it echoes architectural motifs (the motif part sounds good to me). Plus, it is universal, sensual in a tactile way (do we get to touch this art?), and it elicits emotional responses.
I can easily believe the part about eliciting emotional responses. With no disrespect for Sean Scully's artistry, any time the U.S. government spends a million dollars to buy a sculpture for display at an embassy you can be certain that there will be profound emotional responses, particularly from members of Congress.
The incomparable State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf displayed some performance art of her own at last Friday's daily press briefing when she tried to explain why she thinks this purchase is "a good use of our limited resources" (yes, she does):
Okay, on the artwork, we have an Art in Embassies program run through the Office of Art in Embassies which curates permanent and temporary exhibitions for U.S. embassy and consulate facilities. It’s a public-private partnership engaging over 20,000 participants globally, including artists, museums, galleries, universities, and private collectors. For the past five decades, Art in Embassies has played a leading role in U.S. public diplomacy with a focused mission of cross-cultural dialogue and understanding through the visual arts and the artist exchange.
In terms of the London piece, like much of the art purchased by this program, this piece was purchased under the market price after considerable negotiation with both the artist and the gallery. This is an important part of our diplomatic presence overseas. We maintain facilities that serve as the face of the U.S. Government all throughout the world, and where we can promote cross-cultural understanding, and in this case do so for under market value, we think that’s a good use of our limited resources. Yes, we do.
-- snip --
QUESTION: -- to give you the critics’ point of view. I don’t think any of the critics, even the more harshest ones, are saying that people should go to receptions at U.S. embassies abroad and drink Ripple or Natty Boh or something like that. And I’m not – and I don’t think that they’re saying that people --
MS. HARF: (Off-mike.) Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: -- people at – people who are waiting in line or go to embassies should be looking at velvet Elvises and dogs playing poker either on the walls. (Laughter.) But do you acknowledge at least that the amount that was spent and the timing of – that the optics are not particularly good ... particularly going into the government shutdown?
-- snip --
QUESTION: You mentioned that you purchased the art at below market prices.
MS. HARF: Sometimes. Sometimes.
MS. HARF: I don’t know about --
QUESTION: Is that not sort of stiffing the artist? I mean, why not – now, I understand you want to be good stewards of the public’s money. But on the other hand, why not pay them what their stuff is actually worth?
MS. HARF: Well, it’s a negotiation between the artist and the gallery, and having their art displayed in a U.S. embassy and especially a prominent one in a place like London, I think is probably something that, if artists choose to sell us their pieces, is an important thing for them as well.
QUESTION: And it is displayed prominently if anyone could actually get into the embassy to take a look at it, right?
MS. HARF: Is that really a question?
QUESTION: Well, it’s not exactly like it’s a public – it’s going to be – unless it is. I don’t know. Is it going to be outside?
MS. HARF: I have no idea.
"Is that really a question?" Yes, it really was a question, and a pretty basic one. Does the public get to see the art on display in our embassies, or not? Is a sculpture such as Wall of Light Cubed 2 going to be displayed inside or outside the walls of the new London embassy? That's the sort of question a Deputy Spokesperson might reasonably be expected to answer. Alas, Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf had no idea.
I can't be the only one who gets the impression that Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf doesn't actually know all that much about the operations and activities of U.S. Embassies. She always comes off second-best in her frequent bantering with AP's Matt Lee, for example. Why doesn't she have a couple subject matter experts around to prompt her when questions arise that she can't answer?
And don't even get me started on that annoying "Mm-hmm' sound she makes as a sly way to suggest agreement without saying anything. That sound was amusing when it came from Yoda - here's Yoda as Deputy Spokesperson: "A question you have? Mm-hmm" - and creepy when it came from the guy in Sling Blade. When it comes from someone conducting the State Department's daily press briefing it just makes me think she's a lightweight poser.
P.S. - On the subject of art in embassies, let me put in a good word for Velvet Elvises and paintings of dogs playing poker. What's so wrong about those? Personally, I think American artists have only begun to explore the possibilities of the vernacular working-class theme of anthropormorphized dogs playing poker. It is art for the masses and therefore impeccably democratic, so why shouldn't it be displayed in a cross-cultural dialog thingee? At the very least, it ought to get us points for irony.
And who is to say that sort of art doesn't have real cultural value? In a recent post I used a photo of a Proto-Elamite sculpture, a bull in a human pose, which is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to the Met's museum label, bulls in human poses were a common theme in Proto-Elamite art. Is that sculpture on display today merely because it was created around 3,000 BC in southwestern Iran, or because it has genuine artistic interest?
I say to the fancy-pants curators of the Art in Embassies program, don't rule out paintings of dogs playing poker just because it's a modern theme favored exclusively by guys who drink domestic beer. Let's promote that cross-cultural dialog and understanding through the visual arts of the low-brow and the popular, as well as through the rarefied and expensive.