“I have filled him with divine spirit,* with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs.” (Exodus 31:3)
In Calgary a recent unveiling of public art has once again reignited the debate on the value of tax-payer-funded projects. In particular, the launch of “Bowfort Towers,” a rusted metal and rock installation said to mirror the region’s mountains and echo Blackfoot culture, has once again triggered visceral opposition. For some the “consultation” with elders appears questionable and unlikely. Many are furious that the project went to New Yorkers when local artists are crying out for work; still others balk at the $500,000 price tag when city art groups are desperate for funding.
Needless to say, many have countered that public art should be controversial and generate conversations, citing the fierce opposition to the Eiffel Tower as a case in point. As Don Braid pointed out, “in the late 1800s the Eiffel Tower project tore Paris apart. . . . Writers, painters, sculptors and architects vowed ‘to protest with all our strength and all our indignation . . . against the erection . . . of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower. . . .’ ”
I will go out on a limb here and suggest that the latest Calgary project is unlikely to become a beloved cultural symbol for the city. And I will admit to a personal dislike both of the design and the cultural appropriation of the work itself. However, it would be a pity if a fraught work undermined an otherwise admirable initiative, which is to populate public spaces with art. Creative works entering the public domain is always important, not just as a trigger for healthy dialogue and conversation, but also as an acknowledgement of the power of art to actually transform society itself.
It is surely in recognition of this that so many of our popes have spoken on the importance of art, including our last three pontiffs. For John Paul II: “Society needs artists . . . who ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community.” For Benedict XVI: “Dear artists . . . you are the custodians of beauty: thanks to your talent, you have the opportunity to speak to the heart of humanity, to touch individual and collective sensibilities. . . .” And in speaking to the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, a group whose work is dedicated to the restoration of treasured works, Pope Francis noted, “In every age the church has called upon the arts to give expression to the beauty of her faith and to proclaim the gospel message of the grandeur of God’s creation, the dignity of human beings made in his image and likeness.”
It may be a stretch to suggest that public art lays claim to such lofty goals, but it shouldn’t be. Every work of art opens a conversation that connects us to our shared humanity, and reminds us of the need for beauty in a blighted world. As Pope Paul the VI put it in 1965: “this world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair.”
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.