February 17, 2008

50 Foot (Wo)man


It's called the "Arts and Entertainment District", and that doesn't mean pablum anymore. We're well into the age where specific art and entertainment no longer appeal to everyone. Especially in a place that calls itself a city. We want Baltimore to be that kind of place.

So let's quit whining about that tall man/woman in front of Penn Station. (S)he seems to be shrugging her shoulders at us, as if (s)he can't figure out what all the fuss is about. (S)he just happens to be very tall, that's all. (S)he's here, and (s)he can't get any shorter.

The criticism is getting out of hand. In a recent incredibly idiotic editorial, The Baltimore Sun even blamed the Penn Station man/woman sculpture on President Bush and his band of evil neo-con hucksters.

The only art and entertainment that we all seem to agree on is the terminally pathetic, like Brittney Spears, who sells more magazines now that she is an icon of vapid stupidity and talentlessness than she ever did when she was hot.

We're also fascinated by the affect that Jessica and Giselle had on Tony Romo and Tom Brady in not winning the Super Bowl, and whether they played the role of football's version of Yoko Ono. I happen to hate Yoko Ono, but I realize that those kinds of artistic celebrities who are famous for being famous seem to be a biproduct of big successful cities. They don't hang around on the farm.

Andy Warhol is perhaps the best example of a postmodern artistic leach. I think that the big Andy Warhol "Last Supper" thing that the Baltimore Museum of Art paid big bucks for is kinda ridiculous, but I'm not going to complain. And the more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems, which means the whole postmodern irony thing has a lot of staying power.

We used to have local "characters" like Wally Orlinsky, Hymie Pressman, Melvin Perkins, Charlie Eckman and Mr. Diz who provided the real-time performance art. Some old timers like Dan Rodricks and Mike Olesker even lament their passing. We can and should bring back their memories and use them to sell the city, but it will have to be in a postmodern in-yo-face context where someone will complain about them and blah, blah, blah...

Right now, around the corner on Charles Street from the tall (wo)man in front of Penn Station are a couple of large self-consciously artsy billboards of a similar ilk. Billboards are generally considered a "bad" medium and a blot on the landscape and all that, but recall that the glitz and glamour of Times Square was built on seemingly obnoxious billboards.

Here, the really high billboard has the Natty Boh man proposing to the Utz Potato Chip girl with a Smyth engagement ring. I guess it's clever. Whoever came up with it probably thinks so. It has a local ring to it, which is good for Baltimore.

Below it is a cheeky billboard for the Baltimore Opera, which is definitely an institution with artistic ambitions: "Opera: It's better than you think. It has to be." I've heard that the longtime opera veterans are complaining that the newbies are now laughing at the wrong moments of their cherished operas. That's a prime example of postmodern irony. The laughing is probably from folks who are attracted by ads like this. The Baltimore Opera reaps what it sews.

And so do we all. Get used to it. It's the Baltimore Arts and Entertainment District, hon. It's better than boarded up slums. It has to be.


  1. I dunno, the (wo)man looks out of place, but maybe that's the point. We once had a new sculpture, "Renaissance Man and Woman", placed prominently out on the lawn at college and, from my sampling, no one liked it, but the disdain for it sort of unified us, and we speak fondly to this day, not of it so much as of our intense dislike for it. And that dislike makes community. And that's perhaps one of the loftiest goals to which art can aspire.

  2. The man/woman statue is best viewed from the multi-colored Howard Street bridge just under the gorgeous MICA ice cube building. That whole stretch of industry/tracks etc. is like a healed scar that shows how tough Baltimore has always been, and I think the weirdly clunky outline of that statue looks perfect against all the beautiful ugliness in that stretch of the city. What do they want, some asshole general on a horse or something? Criticizing that statue is so easy, it takes a real mental weakling to jump on the bandwagon. The day we let newspaper editorial writers tell us what kind of art to put in our public places will be a sad one.

  3. I expect this piece to be featured in Zippy the Pinhead soon...I can just visualize Zippy having a conversation with the (wo)man...

  4. Ben, you're too late!

  5. Amen, brother.

    I've never gotten what the big deal is over (wo)man. (S)he blocks the view of part of Penn Station, but that's my only complaint.

    Weird public art is a good thing. It's part of what makes living in a city interesting. I've always loved that part of Baltimore around Penn station. It's gritty but beautiful, and that oddball statue accentuates both the beauty and the grit.

    If I want milquetoast art, I can go to the poster store at Arundel Mills.

  6. I think it is out of place but many things in Baltimore and other cities are two. I'm with Grant, my main complaint is it blocks the view of Penn Station.

  7. I'm in the category of those who dislike the piece. However, I don't think we need another statue of a guy on a horse (unless it's McNulty). But isn't there something that could be just as unique in that setting, without being an amorphous he/she robot thing? I propose a huge statue of Noah's Ark, filled with now-extinct animals - such as dodos, dinosaurs, and polar bears (you'd want the piece to be time-relevant). Enough people would hate that to bring them together into a community, right?