Sunday, May 23, 2010

Democratic Consumption, Servile Production: On Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate

Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" is, to my mind, the most successful piece of public art in all of Chicago. It is also more representative of who we are, and how we live, than I imagine even Kapoor ever guessed it could be.

Universally referred to as "The Bean," it sits in a prominent position in Millennium Park, and is almost always surrounded by visitors who seem to really enjoy the piece. A giant, shiny, bean-shaped work of sculpture that gleams in the sun, its curved surface reflects the world around it: the dramatic skyline of Michigan Avenue, the sky, and the visitors themselves, who love to pick their images out of the reflected crowd as they approach the sculpture.

In some ways, "Cloud Gate" is a tremendously democratic work of art: unlike the statues of civil war generals and other Worthy Notables that dot the city, it doesn't revere a particular hero of war or politics or culture, placing him above the crowd: it quite literally reflects the people around it. And unlike the pedestal-mounted figures in Grant Park to the south, it doesn't tower over the people: it invites them closer, and even lets them crawl around underneath it. There's no "hands-off" quality to the big bean. It succeeds where what I take to be a totally misguided attempt at democratic art — Jackson Park's "Statue of the Republic," — fails, because it doesn't rely on a classical iconography that many of the visitors to the city's parks can't decode. What you see (yourself, your crowd, your city, bent into funhouse distortions or stretched out in a curving panorama greater than what one could see unaided) is what you get. And while "Cloud Gate" is modern in form, it doesn't alienate a lot of people, as do some of the great modernist works of public sculpture erected at the command of the first mayor Daley when he was out to show the world that Chicago was more than just the hog-butcher to the world. "Cloud Gate" is, in these ways, a very rare thing — a totally successful piece of democratic public art.

But here's the thing. All of the ways "Cloud Gate" is successful have to do with its consumption, with how visitors see it and interact with it and otherwise take it in. At the other end of the circuit, in the realm of production, it is very much a dictatorial/servile piece of art. Consider how John Ruskin describes the difference between the classical Greek mode of building, and the medieval or gothic way. The medieval craftsman was able to improvise, to add his individual form of expression to the edifice on which he worked. This may have come at the expense of the overall design, and it may have shown his own limitations — the craftsmanship of the whole production, made by many hands, would be uneven. In contrast, the classical Greek aesthetic subordinated the individual craftsman to the head planner, whose vision and expression dominated all others. "The Greek master-workman was far advanced in knowledge and power above the Assyrian or Egyptian," says Ruskin, "Neither he nor those for whom he worked could endure the appearance of imperfection in anything; and, therefore, what ornament he appointed to be done by those beneath him was composed of mere geometrical forms,—balls, ridges, and perfectly symmetrical foliage,—which could be executed with absolute precision by line and rule, and were as perfect in their way, when completed, as his own figure sculpture." Perfect, high-gloss stuff, but the cost? Almost everyone who worked on the piece worked to a strict rule, unsung, without opportunity for individual expression, and servile to dictatorial commands from on high.

The way "Cloud Gate" was made is very much in this Greek mode that Ruskin describes. The thing is a miracle of engineering, but no engineer's name is credited — it is an "Anish Kapoor" artwork. And the people who actually built the thing didn't get to make any individualized contribution to the way it appeared. Given the technical requirements, I don't even think this would have been particularly feasible, and I'm not at all sure it wouldn't have reduced the aesthetic impact of the thing, and its appeal to audiences. (There are contemporary public art works built on Ruskin's gothic lines — the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt comes to mind, for example). But what I'm getting at is this: "Cloud Gate" was made in a hierarchical way, with a controlling intelligence at the top and subordinate, servile, intelligences carrying out the actual production.

So the work is democratic in the realm of consumption: bright, appealing, fun, and approachable. But at the same time it is servile in production, with an uncredited army of workers carrying out tasks that don't allow for their own individual expression. And this is how it becomes a representative work for our times. Late capitalism, after all, promises us all kinds of freedoms as consumers, and courts our favor in the realm of consumption, seeking ingeniously and tirelessly to give us what we want. But in the realm of production ours is an overwhelmingly hierarchical system, with freedom of action reserved for those in positions of authority, and real constraints put on the creative expression of those lower down in the order of things. I mean, take a look at what you're wearing — unless it's a Savile Row tailor-made suit, and if you read this blog, it isn't — it was made by the skilled hands and hard work of someone who had no input on how it looks, or how it is stitched together. From sweatshops to cubicles, the story of production is often much the same.

"Cloud Gate," then, is a mirror not just of the skyline of Chicago, but of the whole economy that skyline represents.


UPDATE May 26: Yesterday, as I slumped into the low-slung marshmallow that passes for a sofa in my colleague Dave Park's office, Park told me he'd read this post. "Yeah. He said, his eyes still fixed on a huge pile of papers (his research -- interviews with the people who staff the seemingly-doomed Vocalo public media project), "it was a good post. But the thing is, you know, that that democratic/servile thing is true of most pop culture." He's probably sort of right: if you think about how Britney Spears concerts have been produced, you see it right away: legions of the unsung carry out commands, have little or no creative input, and the adulation and credit don't go to them. I suppose what's interesting about Kapoor in this context is that he's part of a newish thing in high culture: the artist as a CEO of sorts. People like Kapoor or, say, Jeff Koons (should I say "the odious troll Jeff Koons"? Yes. Yes I should) don't follow the old paradigm of the artist as A. a big name but also B. a maker, a craftsman. There have been other times when this idea was at work: a lot of Renaissance paintings were made with unnamed apprentices doing the grunt work to the master's specs. But what's notable now is the industrial model of production taking root in the artworld. Those Renaissance apprentices did get to express themselves a bit in their handiwork, and they were expected to go on to make artworks of their own devising. The guys who burnished "Cloud Gate" are not. I'd have told that to Park, but he was busy shaking his head over the Vocalo papers, so I heaved myself off his sofa and legged it over to my office, thinking how it would be nice to have an army of anonymous assistants to carry out my whims. As it stands, I have only one.