Kim M. Babon

Cultural Conflict in Public Art
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Sociology Department, University of Chicago

How do individuals make sense of art and how can answering this question explain some of the reasons why art in urban spaces becomes controversial? More specifically, why and how do individuals express negative evaluations of art that has no overt triggers of controversy? Contorted I-beams and a Cupid's bow are not the typical images of controversy, i.e., nude, possibly erotically suggestive photography or questionable uses of iconic materials such as the United States flag or religious symbols. While it is important to examine the controversies that arise from such forms of artistic expression, as they can expose social boundaries and their reproduction (through the action of censorship), it seems equally important to examine the less obvious if not less locally sensational cases to understand how individuals express sentiments against art that on the surface seem to lack overt triggers of controversy.

The purpose of “Location, Location, Location: Art Reception, Context, and Controversy in the City of Love” is to examine the structure and especially the content of two cases of "non-shocking" yet controversial sculpture in San Francisco: Mark Di Suvero's sculpture Pax Jerusalem (1998) at the Palace of Legion of Honor, and a recently (November 2002) implemented sculpture entitled Cupid's Span by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen in a newly developed park across from Gap Incorporated headquarters. Babon chose these two sculptures because they provide the opportunity to explore instances of controversy inspired by different genres (di Suvero's abstract constructivism, and Oldenburg's and van Bruggen's pop art) within one urban environment. It is her intention to closely examine the arguments individuals use to legitimate negative and positive opinions of art in public places in order to explore what triggers controversial responses to sculpture in urban spaces and to determine if there are any patterns that emerge in the language and action of controversy across genres and various social groups.