DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

“Critical” Way of Seeing “Consciously Constructed Ruins”

After the shock of Jackson Park, I was, as I have noted, expecting a different type of research experience once I headed north into the more affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood.


Before the temperatures had plummeted too far, thereby forcing me to explore Palfrey and Gasser’s “participatory culture” of the Internet (2003, p. 129), I posed my research questions to a local horticulturist and higher education instructor who proved to be another valuable research participant. As we watched the sun set over Diversey Harbor near the east entrance of Lincoln Park Zoo, he spent hours visiting with me regarding the subject, and I am grateful for his contribution.[1]



After I explained my research project to him, he began by noting as horticulturist, he could only imagine the frustration the landscape designers had with the inclusion of what he called “poorly soldered day-glow artist dissertation pieces” inserted into what he identified as the landscape artists’ own creative expressions, the formal gardens filling the interior of Lincoln Park. For me, his point was particularly valid, especially when compared with the originally meticulous efforts of Burnham and Olmsted as they shaped what have become the participatory democratic educational spaces the horticulturist and I were now enjoying. He added the CSI temporary pieces were perfectly fine when placed along the lakeshore in the more naturalized plots, but balked at them dotting the interior, intentionally designed gardens near Lincoln Park Zoo and Conservatory, comparing the installations to a graffitist who intentionally defaces any other work of art. He observed the landscape designers today have spent years carefully planning and breeding specific plants for site-specific installations, creating designs explicitly intended to compliment the surrounding architecture and sculpture. He noted many of the temporary CSI installations have been placed atop the landscapers’ own installations.


For him, it was not just the ruinous state of many of Chicago monuments that was shocking, but the temporary “day-glow” works interrupting the landscape designers’ installations. The placement of these bright works is seemingly intentional. Leon Golub (1969) noted “abstract sculptures, etc., in our cities become grimacing monsters if viewed in political or utopian contexts” (in Landauer, S., 2006, p. 8). These pieces were meant to shock the viewer in an attempt to have the effect of producing change. Buerger (1974), in his analysis of Benjamin noted the “classicist…treats the material as a whole, whereas the avant-gardiste tears it out of the life totality, isolates it, and turns it into a fragment” (p. 70). CSI installation intentionally mimicked that of the avant-gardiste artists, fragmenting the formal elements of the classical works near which they have been placed.


Owens (1980), also a Benjamin scholar, noted beginning with the French Revolution historical artists “had been enlisted…to produce image upon image of the present in terms of the classical past,” producing works rife with “superficiality, in details of costume and physiognomy…through a radical condensation of narrative into a single, emblematic instant” (p. 68). As I have noted earlier, artists who were either trained or heavily influenced by Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts created many of Chicago’s older monuments during the period following the 1893 Columbia Exposition, which is why their gestures are stiff, even static, seemingly unapproachable. They are frozen in time, works created in an epoch potentially no longer speaking to a modern Chicago audience.[1] Partridge’s Shakespeare (Appendix R) stands as a perfect example of this type of work. It faces a carefully landscaped garden stretching in front of the sculpture. Bach and Gray (1983) noted the plants were specifically chosen from those contained within Shakespeare’s works (p. 142-3). The adjacent Arboretum, built in the same time period, features a room dedicated entirely to ferns. CSI placed Austin I. Collins’ florescent green Fern Tower on the edge of the garden seemingly with the specific intent of shocking the viewer.


In his analysis of allegory, Benjamin (1928) noted the potential impotence of symbol, which Creuzer identified as “originally a child of sculpture” (p. 165). Symbol, like shock, is an immobile moment frozen statically in time. Shock, Beurger (1974) noted, is designed to “direct the reader’s [or in visual arts, the viewer’s] attention to the fact that the conduct of one’s life is questionable and that it is necessary to change it” (p. 80). Shock theoretically becomes a powerful medium that “is the means to break through aesthetic immanence and to usher in (initiate) a change in the recipient’s life praxis” (ibid). Potentially meaningful, critical, transformative art. Symbol and shock, though, have limited force because of their static natures. Buerger added, “Nothing loses its effectiveness more quickly than shock” (ibid, p. 81). These brash CSI pieces, which intentionally strive to shock, are likewise as potentially ineffective as symbols themselves. Like shock, their effectiveness is only transitory. Rather than serving as a “stimulus to change one’s conduct in life,” these pieces, as observed by the horticulturist who criticized them, merely become ineffectual aesthetic annoyances. These contrived newer pieces do not have the same potentially altering, transforming effect the older monumental ruins posses.

As I stood visiting with this horticulturist, I learned much from him as we exchanged thoughts and ideas. He added he deeply appreciated the design and placement of Chicago Industrial (Appendix CC), noting it is such a menacing presence that at times he was unable to look at it, occasionally averting his head as he passed it because of the power of the piece. He lauded the installation, noting the intent of art, after all, is to “disrupt the status quo.” We both agreed the artists’ intention is often specifically that, based upon the avant-garde theories of shock.[1]


He then challenged my line of questioning when I asked him if he was aware of the title of the piece near which we were standing, wondering whether or not it was a valid research question since many sociological studies have noted people respond to visual stimuli differently. He added any number of people who drove past the area on a regular basis may never cognitively register the presence of Chicago’s public art, but argued because they cannot identify it by title, artist or date, much less describe its formal composition, it doesn’t in any way diminish the value of the art or their appreciation of the pieces. I conceded, but asked him whether or not his appreciation of Chicago Industrial had been enhanced once I had told him the title of the piece, and he admitted that yes, it did. Together, through our dialectical engagement with one another regarding the monuments in the neighborhood, we agreed further knowledge of art is indeed an important aspect of art appreciation, yet one could still derive aesthetic enlightenment from its formal elements alone, as my on-line participants have also illustrated.


Finally, I asked him as educator himself whether or not he believed Chicago educators should be fearful of the increased violence within their own neighborhoods, thereby restricting students’ movement within their local communities. He noted each time a student stepped outside of their own house, they were at risk, then wryly added, “Hell, they even get shot by stray bullets while watching television” within their own homes. He concluded, “We can’t always live our lives motivated by fear.”


When I further pressed him to give his opinion regarding the efficacy of the 2012 proposal to use local neighborhood sites as a means of education, he was quite supportive of the initiative, adding as educator, he had known elementary aged students who, though they lived only four blocks from Lake Michigan, had never had the opportunity to see the lake because of a number of reasons, including fear of violence, distractions in the form of video games or television, or merely not having the opportunity to explore their own environment. Like my other participants, he believed the democratic classrooms outside of school, those both hooks and Gruenewald advocated, are excellent opportunities for educators to “critically” engage students in interdisciplinary studies. He stressed, however, in addition to exploring local public art, students would also benefit from exploring the history even of their own educational space, noting several of the Chicago Public School (CPS) buildings were themselves historical monuments with rich history standing upon the precipice of being forgotten.[1] They are, like many of the sculptures surrounding us as we visited on a rare, warm January Mid-Western day, at risk of falling into ruins.


It is specifically in this ruinous state, though, the historical monument is best suited to become a powerful tool of “critical” analysis. “Criticism,” Benjamin noted, “means the mortification of the works,” adding in “the process of decay, and in it alone, the events of history shrivel up and become absorbed in the setting” (ibid, pp. 182, 179). Art, in its essence, must die. Time, and its degenerative decay, therefore allows educators to transform the ruins into new translations, lending new meaning through criticism. Benjamin concluded, “What has survived is the extraordinary detail of the allegorical references: an object of knowledge which has settled in the consciously constructed ruins” (ibid, p. 182). It is upon these ruins educators may best build their place-based curriculum, lending a sense of permanence to those who temporarily occupy the democratic educational space, thereby connecting past, present and future in a single, fluid moment. It is precisely this process of decay that is most crucial, the sites upon which the ruins are able to teach us their new lessons, whether it be in history, ecology, biology, geography or art, engaging us in discussions regarding sexual identity, socio-economic demarcations, or a deeper appreciation of our shared yet diverse rich cultural heritages.


In his final analysis, the horticulturist noted, “Kids love art,” adding, “All education should be based on art.” He believed art should replace all programs since “We know cognitively that [art] develops intelligence, and memorizing formulas is just a waste of time, and causes dropouts.” He encouraged educators to take students outdoors to study art, where they may also perhaps “happen to notice a prairie planting.” Inter-disciplinary curriculum at its best, and, he and I agreed, at its most effective.

A program director for a community outreach performance coalition noted that in order to be effective, Chicago’s 2012 plan should include “a lot of PR” with “talking heads on local news broadcasts and special feature segments, newspaper features” and “user-friendly” literature with “not too much text with lots of pictures of public art.” I add that all these forms of promotion should be student-generated material derived from their explorations of the participatory democratic educational spaces in their local “Neighborhood showcases of culture.”


[1] I summarize the interview rather than relying upon transcription because the video I produced contains audio of a number of my participants, including this one.

[2] Many of these works, incidentally, were created during the same period Benjamin (d. 1940) frequently has addressed in his own analyses. Although he has concentrated much of his analysis on French Second Empire, he also has a number of works on authors who were more contemporary to his own time, including Kafka (d. 1924), Kraus (d. 1936) and Brecht (d. 1956). See Reflections (2007).

[3] Marshall Svendsen’s 2012 Chicago Industrial is yet an amazing example of CSI’s thoughtful curatorship. Its threatening, looming silhouette is most effectively viewed hovering over Chicago’s night-time, luminous skyline from the pedestal of Cyrus Edwin Dallin’s 1890 A Signal of Peace (above), which depicts a Native American looking toward downtown Chicago with his spear (now broken) raised in the gesture from which the piece derives its title.

[4] During the last stages of composing my thesis, CPS announced the closure of 54 schools located primarily in Chicago’s South and West sides, a move that has been criticized as potentially racist and may include some of the schools to which my participant alluded. See http://tinyurl.com/cs3yjwo for a list of closings.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.