US cities need more, not less, adventurous public art

The hammers are out for a Boston public artwork honoring Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy. Sure, “The Embrace” is untraditional. People are entitled to their opinions on this and any other sculpture. Art creates conversation, and public art, more so.

But it is obscenely overheated to liken artist Mark Willis Thomas’ decision to cast giant disembodied arms in bronze an act of violence against King, Coretta Scott King or Black Americans. It is ridiculous to call the Boston Common installation an insult to King’s legacy. And it is just plain stupid to call it a failure because it might look like something offensive from one angle or another. This is a well-intentioned memorial that (surprise!) isn’t to everyone’s taste. New York and cities across America need more, not less, ambitious public art.


Unfortunately, we and too many other metropolises remain stuck in too-limited conversations about who should be honored in our memorials. Blame the noble fight over taking down monuments to Confederate traitors and slavers down South and a sanctimonious commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio to rid New York of any offensive statuary. Of course there ought to be many more monuments to women, and to people of all backgrounds. Of course sculptures depicting monumentally important but complicated people (Teddy Roosevelt and Christopher Columbus, to name two) ought not be removed.

Great public art, which may also be boundary-pushing public art, helps create great spaces. It fosters our sense of community. Though not every attempt succeeds — New York didn’t much like Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” downtown, which understandably aggravated those who actually had to walk through Federal Plaza — all should strive to be important, relevant, accessible and engaging. It must also be well maintained. The Astor Place Cube no longer spins like it’s supposed to. Get that fixed, please.

“The Embrace” is a beautiful work of art — the kind that all cities, and especially this greatest of all cities, ought to produce more of in our civic commons without living in fear of firestorms.

— New York Daily News

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