When I was in college, my professors used to ask this question: WHAT IS ART? My classmates and I would be sitting on the concrete floor of the art school contemplating projects that we’d stayed up half the night to finish. Most of us were still wearing the clothes we’d slept in.
The truth is, I really didn’t care what art was or wasn’t at that point in my life. I had known from the age of eight that I wanted a practical career as an artist, and I was ready to get on with it. But some of my classmates would stare out the window when the question was posed, as though looking for the answer in the trees. Their pondering sometimes caused our morning critiques to drag into the afternoon.
Here’s the thing. My classmates were way ahead of me. They knew at a young age that you couldn’t be a true artist if you were goal-driven like I was. You had to see the things in the periphery and in the rearview mirror. You had to allow yourself to be distracted, especially by things that were tugging at you emotionally. Tunnel vision was not an option.
Public art makes that argument in a big way in St. Louis, and it’s not just because its installations are so huge. It’s because they are put into places where life is happening, where they have the best shot at becoming part of the big beautiful periphery of daily life.
I think in particular of Laumeier Park when I say this, because of the way the art is woven into the woods there. You’ll turn a corner and boom, there it is: a sculpture that makes you feel like you just discovered something no one else has ever seen. It’s not only that the art is saying, “Look at me!” It’s also that it’s saying, “Look at that tree over there. Look at that hill. Life is happening. Don’t forget to watch for it.”
Citygarden does the same thing, but here the art points to kids playing in fountains, businesspeople on lunchbreaks, elegant downtown buildings marching along its borders. Would we take all this in were it not for the sculptures that got our attention in the first place?
Especially downtown where business has a way of consuming us, art gives us respite from our work. It forces us to take a breath, to do a reset, to give us clarity and balance so we can have fulfilling lives.
For those of us who approach each day with a lengthy to-do list, art is a life-giving force. What I wouldn’t give to sit down with my college professors and tell them.
Since it opened in 2009, Citygarden has attracted millions of visitors. The sculpture Eros Bendato by Igor Mitoraj was the subject of my April 2019 calendar page. For prints of Citygarden and other St. Louis attractions or to buy my current A YEAR IN THE CITY calendar, please visit ayearinthecity.com.