Art has an uneasy relationship with the world of commercial enterprise. Commercial artists aren't necessarily held in high regard as they're often charged with tasks like devising nondescript images to hang in the food consumption areas of fast food joints.
Then again, Andy Warhol, whose reputation has remained solid long after his death, was a commercial artist of sorts; his rather high volume studio was famously known as "The Factory."
Others, however, have maintained great art must be associated with great suffering, often the kind of suffering that comes from being a starving artist. Pioneering rock musician Todd Rundgren made note of this notion when he named one of his albums "The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect." Contained in this collection of songs is one, "Bang the Drum All Day," which comments that the musician singing doesn't want to participate in commercial activities: "I don't want to work, I just want to bang on the drum all day."
Still, commercial art and art shown in public places can be great art. The bas relief that graces the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., is but one example of how a government building with a utilitarian function can be transformed by images of key historic events.
The large scale murals that had graced the walls of the Maryland House rest stop on I-95 near Aberdeen had been for more than 40 years examples of the transformative effect of fine art generated for a commercial or utilitarian purpose. Though displayed amid the usual purveyors of highway travel stop fare, they are far from the nondescript images typical of fast food dining areas.
Depicted were scenes of the likes of George Washington, who frequently traveled the well-worn circuit from Virginia to New York City that would become the reason behind I-95. Also there's an image of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad from its early days, not to mention a likeness of Abraham Lincoln.
In all, the eight remaining images commissioned in the late 1960s specifically for the Maryland House and painted by Ohio native William A. Smith depict historic scenes and figures prominent in the making of Maryland and the United States. (A ninth mural was previously removed after it had become the focal point of dispute between the artist and the state when the original was altered during a 1987 renovation of the building.) The Smith murals were not typical of what is found in rest stops, but they are commercial art, at least insofar as they were commissioned for a commercial space, albeit one owned by the government.
The Maryland House is in need of a major overhaul, and it closed last weekend for a renovation project that is expected to take at least a year. Once the building closed, the murals were removed and put into storage, the kind of storage that's appropriate for fine art, according to the state agency overseeing the Maryland House renovation.
When the Maryland House opens anew in 12 to 18 months, however, its unclear what will grace its walls, but it won't be the historical murals painted by Mr. Smith less than a decade after I-95 opened to traffic. Also unclear is what is to become of the murals. While there is a commitment to keep them stored in a safe place, there doesn't appear to be a plan for doing with the art what is meant to be done with art, namely having it in a place where people can see it and enjoy it.
No doubt when the Maryland House opens for business in the autumn or winter of 2013, it will be a welcome vision for weary travelers on I-95. Unfortunately, even as it is promised there will be a rather impressive array of food for sale as a new concessionaire is poised to take over, the cultural amenities will be a good deal less substantial, and mentally less filling.
Work on renovating the Maryland House is just getting started, which means there is time to change plans for what is to be hung on the walls of the completed building. Putting back in place the murals that have been recognized as important works in their artistic category would be a fitting way to link the old Maryland House with the new, just as the paintings themselves link the contemporary Interstate America with its more rustic beginnings.