To those who insist the exhibition installed in Mount Vernon Place by students at the Maryland Institute College of Art is not really art, I can only say that all art is about ideas, particularly the art of today.
In the past, art was easy to recognize because it almost always took the form of an image: The Venus de Milo is a representation of ideal beauty, just as a Raphael Madonna encodes a complex religious theology. These images are beautiful to look at, but we understand them most deeply in terms of the ideas they represent.
The biggest difference between the art of the past and that of today is that today's artists, following the modernist impulse to strip away everything that is nonessential to the work of art, likewise have stripped the image of nearly all its traditional associations. In the extreme case, what's left is merely a sign that points to an idea. It's that idea that holds the meaning of the artwork.
In the 1970s, critic Arthur C. Danto defined an artwork as the embodiment of a meaning. It had to be "about" something, and it had to embody the meaning of what it was about, he said.
The MICA students' pieces in Mount Vernon Place, designed to complement the big map exhibition at the Walters Art Gallery across the street, fulfill both conditions, notwithstanding the controversy provoked by one student's effort to fence off the park grounds for two weeks last month, thus enraging neighborhood residents. But even a fence can be an artwork under Danto's dictum that, today, art can look like anything and be made out of any material.
What's left to consider, then, is not whether the Beyond the Compass, Beyond the Square pieces are works of art but rather what kind of art they might be, and what meaning they might hold. Whatever judgments are made will hinge on the quality and relevance of ideas embodied in the works.
By that standard, the most successful works would have to be Um-Gi Lee's diminutive ink stamps of area architectural details, which she installed in tiny white kiosks strategically located around the square, Jonathan Taube's 6-foot- tall cylinder of brooms that he and his collaborators used to sweep up trash around the area last Saturday, which resembles a thrift-store Greek column, and Rachel Faller's knitted bridge at the extreme east end of the park, which serves both as a symbol of racial and class reconciliation and as a handy child's play station.
What all three pieces do is invite viewers to engage imaginatively in the idea of a community that is open, diverse and mindful of both its history and its responsibility to support all its members. Taube's project, titled A Monument to Collective Effort, is a work of performance art in which he mobilized community members to work together toward the common goal of beautifying a historic urban space. His sculpture of brushes, broom handles and neatly boxed trash merely documents the group's performance, which is itself the literal embodiment of the idea behind the artwork.
I was dismayed to learn that over the weekend vandals had attacked Taube's piece with a brick. Vandals also damaged Emma Fowler's fragile installation of imaginary maps, ripping a screen from the display. Those acts negate the very idea of neighborhood comity and reconciliation that the artworks embodied.
Which of course, brings us to Lee Freeman's gold-painted chain-link fence, which sparked so much anger when it was installed because it temporarily prevented all access to the parks around Mount Vernon Place. After residents and a City Council member questioned the project, Freeman removed panels after a few days to allow people to use the popular park. The fence was removed entirely Saturday.
While some may think discussions about what constitutes art are too arcane for ordinary people to take much notice of, the episode of the fence suggests that most folks are perfectly capable of recognizing when they are being patronized and condescended to. Freeman's fence did both in a particularly obnoxious way, but that's not the only reason it is unsuccessful as an artwork.
The quality of artworks today really depends crucially on the quality of the ideas they embody. Freeman's idea - that preventing people from entering the park somehow will make them more appreciative of its beauties - is insensitive and flawed.
One hesitates to criticize a student's work in such harsh terms, but the mere fact that, today, anything can be art and anyone can be an artist does not relieve artists of responsibility for the quality of their ideas. Artworks can embody foolish ideas just as easily as they can good ones, and the public is certainly entitled to judge the difference.
Controversy is not necessarily a bad thing in art. Indeed, it often serves the useful purpose of stimulating debate and prompting reconsideration of received ideas. This was, ostensibly, one of the goals of Freeman's piece. Yet there is no intrinsic value in controversy for its own sake, and this seems to be about all Freeman's misguided piece managed to achieve, aside from creating a toxic climate of wholly undeserved enmity for all the other artists in the show.