An Introduction: Monumental or Critical?
Time goes, you say? Ah, no,
Alas, time stays; we go.
I fell in love on December 6, 2008. I had arrived in Chicago the night before, and spent most of the night wide awake on the ninth-floor of a south-side, lake-facing apartment watching rain bathe the city in what seemed to be unholy baptism, washing away dirty piles of snow that had accumulated before my arrival. I listened to thunder bounce from tower to tower as lightening bolts connected each point like the lines of a crayon clutched tightly in a child’s hand, at first brilliant, fading, then gaining renewed life as silver lines shimmered across the lake. My erstwhile guide and I were going to Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s annual performance of Handel’s Messiah. He knew my passion for the arts, so we arrived downtown early enough for us to see Jauame-Plesna’s Crown Fountain (left). At that moment, Chicago’s public art—as well as the 1,000 faces projected onto the 50 foot-tall glass LED pillars across a 232 foot-long refection pond—captured my heart.
Drawn back to my first love, I began an application to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) after spending spring and summer breaks of 2009 here. I wandered the streets of Chicago, walking or riding my bike along Lakeshore Drive, wasting away beautiful hours as I dipped into Hyde Park or stretched into Wrigleyville, basking in the vastness of Chicago’s Parks. As head instructor of a liberal arts department at a small community college in Colorado, I was excited to introduce my students to the wealth of American art and history I had stumbled upon while pedaling through the city.
In addition to hours spent in the parks enjoying public monuments, I became a member of every cultural organization imaginable. I attended Chicago’s Architectural Foundation tours (CAF), Art Institute of Chicago lectures (AIC), Oriental Institute lectures (UCOI), Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts (CSO), Lyric Opera of Chicago presentations (LOC), and various theater and dance performances, filling journals with nearly indecipherable, hastily scribbled notes. I interviewed photographers, editors, artists, journalists, fellow museum attendees and lecturers. I amassed ticket stubs and event programs with enough acronyms to fill the cans on a whole print of Warhol’s Campbell’s Vegetable Soup. I collected books, prints, and more notes; all what I thought to be valuable materials for my own classroom.
Throughout my visits, I found books on Chicago’s architecture, museum collection catalogues and e-subscriptions. But there was one glaring absence. I was frustrated with how little I could find (other than an occasional richly burnished bronze, steel or copper plaque) regarding Chicago’s public art. Any time I asked where I could find a publication on Chicago’s monuments, I was met with a blank stare. Nothing was available. Docents and booksellers would begin rattling off potential websites, filling several pages in my dog-eared journals.
By the end of the summer, I invested what, on my limited budget, seemed to be, in retrospect, a small fortune. I realized much of Chicago’s rich culture was, well, precisely that: culture available only to those who were rich. Their vast parks and their old monuments, I realized, were the exception. As I began preparing my materials for the fall semester, I was faced with a problem: How could the participatory democratic space surrounding Chicago’s public, “monumental” art be used as a “critical” component of education?
As educator, I value the input of my students, structuring my classes around art and literature that interests them, democratically choosing what they would like to discuss throughout the semester. Whatever the course, whether writing, literature or art, my students bring their own work into the classroom: film, photos, crafts, poetry, music, canvases, sketchbooks, dramatic reproductions, textiles, cultural costume, food (and even once a whoopee cushion) to enhance our shared experiences. Since Chicago’s public art had very little relevance to their lives, and since I was unable to answer my research question, I tucked my collection into files on my computer, boxes in a garage, and shelves on a bookcase, pulling them out rarely for projects at SAIC. Until I began my thesis, the material seemed to have been a monumental waste of time, energy and money: nothing more. I was reminded of my seemingly fruitless investment of time and money in Chicago’s culture when I joined 4,700 other Chicagoans who attended one of twenty neighborhood cultural conversations as Chicago moved toward a comprehensive cultural plan (City of Chicago: Final, 2012, p. 6). The primary theme of this Conversation, which took place at DePaul University, was a lack of accessibility to Chicago’s cultural events because of participants’ limited funds.
Chicago’s 2012 “Cultural Plan” designated between $250,000 to 1 million, proposing educators take students into their own communities, relying upon “Neighborhood showcases of culture…that are located within walking distance of the school,” thereby optimizing “affordability” (Supplemental, p. 4). After my 2009 not-so-small investment into Chicago’s culture, I better understood the city administration’s concern: participating in Chicago’s cultural events is, indeed, costly. Public art, free for all and scattered across Chicago, serves as tools educators may utilize in implementing the use of affordable local neighborhood culture. Yet since much of the public art is historical in nature, has its efficacy in a modern classroom become diminished?
Walter Benjamin (1999) noted, “The expression ‘the book of nature’ indicates that one can read the real like a text” (p. 464). By looking at art, by studying its history, “We open the book of what happened” (ibid). He added, “In the dialectical image, what has been within a particular epoch is always simultaneously, ‘what has been from time immemorial’” (ibid). Benjamin argued a work of art as an historical document may “attain to legibility only at a particular time;” they stand, therefore, as potentially monumental historical artifacts relevant only to the historical epoch in which they were created, and nothing more (p. 462). He noted works of art that are dialectical, those “that [are] read,” transcend their purely monumental status, becoming something that is “not archaic,” transforming into work he identified as “genuinely historical” or relevant to whomever chooses to critically look to the image as a dialectical text (ibid, p. 463). Do older public sculptures become living documents from which we may learn new lessons, or are they archaic monuments merely filling valuable real estate space at the busiest intersections in Chicago, seemingly sacred spaces protected by city plans and legislation, documents that may seem as archaic as the works of art which they now protect? Benjamin observed at the intersection between older images and present analysis, historical works of art may serve either as “monumental” obstacles to progress, or through “the task of…interpretation,” they may become crucial tools of transformative, “critical” history (ibid, p. 464). By engaging in meaningful discourse, participatory democratic members within the educational space surrounding public works of art will introduce their differing points of view, potentially leading to a dialectical consensus, thereby drawing what may have previously become an archaic monument into the realm of a “genuinely historical” image.
In my project, I compared Chicago’s 1909 Plan with the 2012 “Cultural Plan.” I conducted a series of interviews in Jackson and Lincoln Parks, and used social media to develop a dialogue about the art in these areas. I explored how educators may effectively utilize participatory democratic educational spaces surrounding older public works of art in their local neighborhoods. In my literature review, I asked how has Chicago utilized these participatory democratic spaces surrounding its public art? In my on-site observations, I analyzed how the community responds to public art. In my interviews, I asked the following questions: What attracts people to public art? How educated is the public regarding art they view? Which works of public art are most memorable? Why? And finally, as educator, I analyzed how older monuments may be used as “critical” components in education thereby transcending the purely “monumental” aspects of public art.
 I borrow this phrase from one of my 2010 multi-media pieces contained within my artist portfolio submitted for my application into the School of the Art Institute of Chicago MAAE Program. See https://vimeo.com/43066722.
 When the objection had been raised that many events were free, one participant, a student, quickly pointed out, “Transportation isn’t.” For a partial analysis of the March 14, 2012 Conversation, see: https://saic.digication.com/roberta_jean_molyneux_davis/Master_s_Thesis/published.