at Doris C. Freedman Plaza, Central Park
Jean Appriou’s collection of aluminum horses at the southeast entrance of Central Park begs several questions, the most important of which may be, Just how needed is sculpture as a memorial anymore? For millennia, sculpture has functioned as a memorial to the dead, and New York is not lacking for equestrian monuments celebrating the deceased--mainly generals and politicians--in the hope of keeping their memory alive. But this cannot be fully descriptive of the young French sculptor Appriou’s installation The Horses, which features slightly ragged casts of three animals in aluminum, a metal whose brightness is so unusual as to nearly convince the audience the materials are artificial. At the same time, we have the current memory of the forlorn horses pulling tourists in open cabs through the greenery of Central Park.
In consequence, the works by Appriou demonstrate an awareness of conceptual problems in public sculpture today, as well as the recognition that horses have been abused in New York City in a contemporary sense. Indeed, the feeling aligned with this installation is not so much heroic as abject. This happens despite the fact that within a very short walking distance from Appriou’s three oversize works, we have evidence of a major historical homage in sculpture: the pedestaled piece by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, finished in 1903, celebrating the Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman on a horse. Sherman is quite literally high on his horse, but it looks like our French artist, like his audience, strongly doubts the relations between notoriety, its authenticity, and the effectiveness of public memory in light of famous people’s sometimes mixed behavior. The three horses are so large two of them can be walked under their bellies; one of these is truncated, its top half cut off flat, perhaps in a deliberately downward gesture. In a way, the works command interest without demanding respect.
What, then, is possible in light of an indifferent audience? A sculptor friend told me that, on a visit to Paris, he watched for ten minutes people pass Rodin’s great sculpture of Balzac in a cloak, and found that not one person looked upward to study the work of art. This is a melancholic situation, to say the least, but it is also inevitable given the distance we maintain today between the present and the past, not to mention our skepticism in regard to sculpture’s ability to maintain a living recollection in regard to historical figures and events whose meaning took place decades if not centuries ago. Is there anything that can be done to ameliorate the situation? Good art always remembers, even if it is merely the artwork that immediately preceded it. In a deeper sense, as I have noted, it is intended to keep alive the recognition of historical achievement. We know now that this achievement is often stained in regard to the figures we put on a pedestal; indeed, we regularly hear of attempts to remove sculptures of persons of public stature whose work or private life generates moral doubt about them as people. Appriou’s installation results in no historical awareness whatsoever.
So then the question becomes: Why should public sculpture of this sort function any longer at all? Much public art now evident in New York City recognizes a diversity of cultures and achievements, in the hopes that our urban variousness, in terms of all people and their ways of life, is celebrated rather than being an occasion for prejudicial feeling. With this goal in mind, some work that does this does not occur on a national or even a regional level, but rather in light of the local community in which the sculpture is sited. By bringing in a French sculptor to embellish next to one of the busiest and most visited intersections in New York, 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, the Public Art Fund is internationalizing a distinctly vernacular, if also famous, location. This is not inappropriate for the city, whose well-known, and not-so-well-known, artists come from all over the world. What it does mean, though, is that historical particularity is being exchanged for a general awareness of culture. But this generates a problem, in the sense that cultural unity is undermined because of our insistence on including disparate elements of past achievements from global geographies. There is a good chance that cultural unity never actually existed, but eclecticism has its limits, too.
So, while there is nothing wrong in doing so, we can easily lose the particulars of our art expression in light of work that attempts to address its audience generally about cultural and historical situations, which are specific to their time and place. There is nothing overtly linking the Appriou anti-monument to the place it occurs, except perhaps its general connection to the horse-drawn carriages and the Saint-Gaudens monument. But the ties feel tenuous. Instead, Appriou, who comes from the mostly rural west of France, may be paying homage to a creature more at home in the countryside than on the pavement of New York City. Whatever the artist’s motives may be, it is clear he has constructed a monument in opposition to traditional art values--its aura is democratic and far from noble. This does not mean that the work lacks visual interest; the three sculptures compel their audience to look. All three horses are larger than life: one consists of legs and chest, belly, and haunches, which are cut flat across half the height of the animal, thus adding a surreal abruptness to the work; the other is of an entire horse, its back arched and head bent over as if it were grazing; and the third piece shows the horse resting on bent legs in contact with the ground. Part of the interest of the installation comes from the artist’s inclusion of a rough exterior determined by his creative decisions when first forming the art in clay or foam. Perhaps consciously, the bulges and indentations seen on the horses’ exteriors also pull the aura of the work down by emphasizing the way their construction took place.
What can we say about the overall impression of the image? The Horses is a monument that refuses to promote its stature, outside of its great size. We know from someone like Claes Oldenburg, himself a public artist of achievement, that making something larger than it actually is confers the object with physical distinction and visual interest. Moreover, Oldenburg, like Appriou, was anti-monumental in his esthetic. It must be said that the horses in the plaza are hardly distinctive; they are merely ordinary, close to being nags. Maybe the point the artist is trying to make, by accentuating the anti-heroic in his art, has to do with what has come close to a nearly universal disregard of public virtue, so wary and disaffected have we become regarding the intrinsic social value of the known figure, whose life becomes the material for intense investigation. No known people are sitting on the horses we see--indeed, no person is seen at all. Interest and sympathy have been shifted from the public figure to the animal supporting him. Appriou’s decision has partly leveled the stature of the statue with the level of the passerby on the ground; in doing so, he loses the possibility of apotheosis, a process now found to be reprehensible in that a democratized culture recognizes no heroes at all.
Thus, the increase in sympathy, made culturally available in as wide a sense as possible, may also result in a lack of transcendence. In one way, cultural leveling does make sense because there is truth to the insight that our heros often example entitlement and privilege as much as they demonstrate noble qualities--or, rather, qualities deemed noble by those in charge. But in another way, the horses’ energies are lax, even pitiable--they leave us nothing to hope for. Generally speaking, The Horses demonstrates the current bias in favor of a leveled culture, in which hierarchies of accomplishment are actively dismantled. The flattening of the playing field is profoundly interesting, in that the possibility of a larger audience is widened, almost to an infinite degree. But, at the same time, the idealism that has been challenged fades in the face of a cultural politics that may oversimplify the values our artists are trying to convey. If we must accede to a less exalted view of public art’s possibilities, it is also true we do away with part of the spectrum of art’s capacity, which is to delight and even elevate its audience in the face of the ordinary. Celebrating the ordinary can first seem like a great freedom, but it carries overtones of monotony, and even cultural disregard, we would be wise to treat with caution.
- Jonathan Goodman