A Minute in the City 1-9-23: What is art?

At last fall’s art fairs, I showcased my print of 100 Above the Park, the new St. Louis building designed by noted architect Jeanne Gang and the January subject of my 2023 calendar. It drew more attention than anything I’d hung at a show before. Everyone had an opinion. Not about the art, but about the building.

I would argue that architecture is art in so many ways. And something about hearing all those comments last fall transported me back to art school, where we would critique one another’s projects weekly. Critiques, which often went on for hours, were my least favorite thing about college. It was not easy to have my work picked apart by my peers. It wasn’t easy to pick theirs apart, either. But it was required.

Forty years later, I think I understand why. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And when beholders speak, they steer the future of visual art. The people who came by my booth at the fall shows were doing exactly that by sharing their views on that crazy new building in the West End.

“Hey, look! It’s the artichoke,” somebody said. “It’s that pineapple building!” chimed in someone else. “It’s the coffee filter!” “It’s the Chinese take-out boxes!” “It’s the cheese grater!”

“I know someone who lives there,” a woman told me. “I want to live there,” said another. “I couldn’t stand to live there with those slanted walls. I’d be afraid to look out.”

“I would want to look out over the park.” “I’d want to look east, toward the arch.” “Can you see the arch from there?” “I don’t know. Do they have balconies?”

“I remember when it was going up. I said what the hell?” “All that glass!” “It looks different than everything around it. Out of place.” “It looks different than anything around it, and I think that’s good, you know?”

“Everybody gets a corner, I heard.” “That’s all it is. Corners.” “Depending on where you’re standing, it looks square or rectangular or some other shape. I can’t get my head around it.”

“I like seeing it from the park.” “Nope. From around back, the northeast, I think.” “It has a different vibe.”

Yes. The 100 Building definitely has a different vibe. And, with its stacked and splayed design, it does kind of look like an artichoke (and everything else it’s been called.) But, before I displayed it at my booth, I had no idea the buzz it would create. All the talk doesn’t mean the design is good, but it doesn’t mean it’s bad, either. It just means that it is seen, that people are responding to it.

Back in college, I was forced to respond to art. That was part of my visual training. Once, two hours into a critique, an instructor posed the question, “What is art?” which pretty much guaranteed that we’d be sitting there for another two hours. We didn’t reach a consensus on the subject that day. But 40 years later, I think we’re getting closer. When hundreds of people see the same picture in a single day and feel compelled to comment, it really does matter. It says that art is shaping our world, that raw inspiration and nonlinear thinking continue to work with science and technology to move us forward. You know the art is working when people respond.

Next month, the individual prints from my 2023 calendar will go on sale. And, by this time next year, I’ll have a pretty good idea which of the new images resonate most. Will it be the iconic ones that celebrate St. Louis’ history? Will it be those that recount a “day in the life” of customers? Or will it be those that get us talking? Whichever way it goes, the responses matter. The eye of the beholder shapes what comes next.



100 Above the Park is the January feature in my 2023 A YEAR IN THE CITY calendar. In February, it will go on sale as an 11 x 14 litho print. It is available now as a limited-edition 16 x 20 archival print. Both the calendar and prints can be found at ayearinthecity.com/shop.