Does public art make sense?

(This classic Dave Barry column was originally published Sept. 7, 1997.)

Like many members of the uncultured, Cheez-It-consuming public, I am not good at grasping modern art. I'm the type of person who will stand in front of a certified modern masterpiece painting that looks, to the layperson, like a big black square, and quietly think: ''Maybe the actual painting is on the other side.'' I especially have a problem with modernistic sculptures, the kind where you, the layperson, cannot be sure whether you're looking at a work of art or a crashed alien spacecraft. My definition of a good sculpture is ''a sculpture that looks at least vaguely like something.'' I'm talking about a sculpture like Michelangelo's ''David.'' You look at that, and there is no doubt about what the artist's message is. It is: ''Here's a naked man the size of an oil derrick.''

I bring this topic up because of an interesting incident that occurred recently in Miami. When people ask me, ''Dave, why do you choose voluntarily to live in Miami?'' I answer, ''Because interesting incidents are always occurring here.'' For example, just recently (digression alert) federal agents here arrested two men on charges of attempting to illegally sell weapons.

''Big deal!'' you are saying. ''Federal agents in many cities regularly arrest people for illegally selling weapons!''

Right. But these were nuclear weapons. I swear I am not making this up. The two suspects are Lithuanian nationals; they were allegedly working on a deal to sell undercover agents some Russian-made tactical nuclear weapons.

Call me a Nervous Nellie, but I am concerned about the sale of nuclear arms in my general neighborhood. I say this because of the popular Miami tradition, which I am also not making up, of celebrating festive occasions by discharging weapons into the air. I am picturing a scenario wherein some Miami guy chugs one too many bottles of Cold Duck at his New Year's party, and when the clock strikes midnight, he staggers over to the closet where he keeps his tactical nuclear weapon -- which he told his wife he was buying strictly for personal protection -- and he says to himself, ''I wonder how that baby would sound!''

But my point (end of digression alert) is that Miami tends to have these interesting incidents, and one of them occurred a little while ago when Dade County purchased an office building from the City of Miami. The problem was that, squatting in an area that the county wanted to convert into office space, there was a large ugly wad of metal, set into the concrete. So the county sent construction workers with heavy equipment to rip out the wad, which was then going to be destroyed.

But guess what? Correct! It turns out that this was not an ugly wad. It was art! Specifically, it was Public Art, defined as ''art that is purchased by experts who are not spending their own personal money.'' The money, of course, comes from the taxpayers, who are not allowed to spend this money themselves because 1) they probably wouldn't buy art, and 2) if they did, there is no way they would buy the crashed-spaceship style of art that the experts usually select for them.

The Miami wad is in fact a sculpture by the famous Italian sculptor Pomodoro. (Like most famous artists, he is not referred to by his first name, although I like to think it's ''Bud.'' ) This sculpture cost the taxpayers $80,000, which makes it an important work of art. In dollar terms, it is 3,200 times as important as a painting of dogs playing poker, and more than 5,000 times as important as a velveteen Elvis.

Fortunately, before the sculpture was destroyed, the error was discovered, and the Pomodoro was moved to another city office building, where it sits next to the parking garage, providing great pleasure to the many taxpayers who come to admire it.

I am kidding, of course. On the day I went to see it, the sculpture was, like so many pieces of modern taxpayer-purchased public art, being totally ignored by the actual taxpaying public, possibly because it looks -- and I say this with all due artistic respect for Bud -- like an abandoned air compressor.

So here's what I think: I think there should be a law requiring that all public art be marked with a large sign stating something like: ''Notice! This is a piece of art! The public should enjoy it the tune of 80,000 clams!''

Also, if there happens to be an abandoned air compressor nearby, it should have a sign that says: ''Notice! This is not art!'' so the public does not waste time enjoying the wrong thing. The public should enjoy what the experts have decided the public should enjoy. That's the system we use in this country, and we're going to stick with it. At least until the public acquires missiles.

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