Last night I wandered around midtown Manhattan with my friend Joe Ornstein and we behaved like tourists. That is to say, rather than actually having a firm plan to go somewhere specific, we walked around at a leisurely pace admiring various buildings, parks, statues, a sound installation, etc. In one’s hometown, wherever it is, we are usually too busy to look at or listen to all of the fascinating things available for the eyes and ears to feast on.
For example, right around the corner from the offices of the American Music Center there’s an obelisk that’s been there since 1857—it’s actually the second oldest public statue in New York City. The obelisk honors a General William Jenkins Worth (1794-1849), for whom the city of Fort Worth, Texas, is named, a child of pacifists who rejected their beliefs to embark on one of the most successful American military careers of the early 19th century. While he led a campaign against the indigenous Seminole Indians of Florida, he convinced the then Secretary of War not to repatriate them as had been done with other tribes. I could go on, but this is probably more detail than you’d ever want to know (if you want more, go here). Suffice it to say, I’ve probably walked by it more than 5000 times and never really paid attention. It was quite a pleasant surprise.
The discovery of the Worth Obelisk right under our noses piqued our curiosity to find the oldest public statue in New York City, which according to the signage around the obelisk is a statue of George Washington mounted on a horse located at the south end of Times Square, so we proceeded north by foot, stopping along the way to acknowledge the James Gordon Bennett Memorial Clock at Herald Square (across from Macy’s). Every hour, two bronze-sculpted blacksmiths move to strike a bell—once again, this is something I’d never noticed before despite walking by it for decades. Then it was on to Times Square where, as luck would have it, throngs were gathered to watch a projection of the Metropolitan Opera’s opening night gala. We stayed only a few minutes, making a brief pilgrimage to Max Neuhaus’s sound installation, an electronically-generated chord which emerges from a large underground vault covered by grating on a small traffic island. There’s no signage for it—Neuhaus left it anonymous intentionally—and few people realize that it’s there. Last night it seemed that we were the only folks taking time to listen amid the endless stream of people passing through. But no matter where we looked we could not find that Washington statue. A web search reveals that we were sent in the wrong direction by the sign at the Obelisk and it’s actually at the south end of Union Square. However the walk we wound up taking allowed for some reflection about public art.
How does new music fit into this iconography? The word “iconoclast” (which means a destroyer of icons) has frequently been used to praise artists whose work is deemed original and provocative. But does anyone who creates art actually destroy anything? And after the 20th century avant-garde posited that anything can be art, are there any rules left that an artist would feel compelled to destroy? Isn’t the creation of art, whatever its aesthetics, ultimately about making icons? Max Neuhaus’s work has become as much an invaluable part of the Manhattan cityscape as the Worth Obelisk and the Bennett clock; such is the nature of the passage of time and how it can affect whatever survives having been new for a fleeting moment. But Neuhaus’s chord, like those other formidable New York icons, is also more often rushed by than cherished. Like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest that no one hears, a work of art ultimately needs an audience to have relevance. Yet there are more works of art than anyone, even the most obsessive culture vulture, can ever have time to absorb. In such a cultural milieu, what effective role can art have in society, particularly public art?