In the middle of the 20th century, the Central Intelligence Agency executed a commendable troll against the American left. Long rumored to be a joke, documents released in the 1990s revealed that during the Cold War the CIA secretly funded and promoted some of America’s biggest contemporary artists without the knowledge of the artists themselves.
It was art as weapon. The US aimed to showcase the intellectual freedom and creative superiority of Western, capitalist societies against the drab, inhibited propagandist art of the Soviet Union by broadcasting this wildly inventive style in vogue at the time. The CIA propped up artists like Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. All those artists suck, particularly Rothko, but the funny part is many were staunch leftists, and some card-carrying members of the American Communist Party, who railed against the very system the CIA was using them to promote. Well played, Deep State.
Around that time, one man, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, whose mother founded the Museum of Modern Art, is said to have changed the face of public art forever in America’s cities. He bulldozed a working-class community and evicted some 7,000 residents under eminent domain to make way for the new Empire State Plaza, in Albany. Beginning in 1966, Rockefeller amassed a collection of abstract and expressionist artwork for permanent display in the new government complex. Today visitors to the plaza – described by critics as being inspired by Fascist architecture and having an ‘eerie feeling of detachment’ – will find sculpture of colorful intersecting loops, lots of big cubes, a metal spirograph, and a soldier on horseback made from welded car bumpers. The current director of MoMa calls Empire State Plaza’s art, ‘the most important State collection of modern art in the country.’ Anyone who reads The New Yorker will certainly agree, the destruction of a peasant community was a noble sacrifice in the name of art that drops a steaming load on the human soul.
Still, the over-the-top, fanciful art of the 1960s wasn’t heavily political, at least in the partisan sense, despite Rockefeller once saying everything he knew about politics he learned from his mother’s museum. He didn’t take to his father’s tastes so much. The Rockefeller Center in Manhattan is home to a renowned collection of art deco motifs celebrating science, industry, and the human spirit.
Thankfully, today, the worst of contemporary art remains safely locked away in places like MoMa, where constipated people in quirky spectacles are free to stare for hours at a scribble of Crayon above a placard reading, ‘The artist, whose name cannot be pronounced because it’s written in Wingdings, was inspired by the amorphous transgression of the Laplander diaspora and a beautiful hatred of his mother. This work is so transcendent it criticizes itself.’
That stuck-in-the-Sixties whimsical sculpture – sometimes irritating but mostly harmless – still pops up in public spaces all the time, where the target audience always appears to be children under 10 and college professors. But increasingly, the tyrannical minority of progressives who have infiltrated municipal governments is enforcing public art upon the masses as insufferable and woke as they are.
Since Marxism abandoned economics for race and gender, New York City’s state-sponsored art can be boiled down to nothing but an aggressive reminder that lots of different looking people live there. Because you can’t just step outside to realize that. The $4.5 billion Q train extension comes with a hall of diversity at the 72nd Street station, featuring murals of sassy black chicks and gay coal miners. I was shocked to see, along the corridor, the depiction of a Jewish man holding a globe and a briefcase. Imagery of Jews and globes is straight from Nazi propaganda, yet no one seems to have found this problematic, particularly given the left’s bold embrace of anti-Semitism. I found one Jewish blog mildly queasy about the installation, but then the writer reasoned the figure was probably just a geography teacher.
The Link system, a $200 million ‘international infrastructure project’ in New York replaces payphones with 10-foot-tall wi-fi kiosks. So far, they’ve been useful only as hitching posts for masturbating homeless people to watch porn and to disseminate cringe-inducing state-approved art, like the ‘Diverse City’ series by an entity called Lil Icon. He appears to work in Microsoft Paint while high on cupcakes. These groundbreaking conversation-starters, beamed across the city, depict – wait for it – the Statue of Liberty playing multicultural dress up – one in a hijab, another with an afro raising a ‘black power’ fist, one draped in a gay flag, and another wheelchair-bound.
In 2016, New York installed a metal statue of a figure with a noose around its neck in Riverside Park. The city got cold feet, speculating that pilates classes and old ladies feeding pigeons maybe don’t want to be subjected to lynching imagery first thing in the morning. The left cried censorship and suddenly championed something called ‘free speech,’ a term rumored to be a Nazi dogwhistle. The city cowered to the outrage and allowed the noose.
A year later, leftists dropped to their knees and wept tears of emancipation when a bronze statue of a small girl staring down the charging Wall Street Bull was installed in the Financial District. Others interpreted the piece as the gruesome scene moments before an unattended child is about to be mauled. In the end, this stunning and brave ‘up yours’ to capitalism turned out to be nothing but an advertisement for an investment firm.
Like the Fearless Girl statue, much of woke public art results from a partnership between progressive governments and private entities. The open borders advocate and sometimes artist Ai Weiwei, who quite possibly pioneered an aesthetic we can think of as the Hamptons Airbnb School, was commissioned by New York to install hundreds of sculptures across the city, a project he called ‘good fences make good neighbors.’
The installation was up for three months and I don’t think a single person in New York noticed, save for the 37-foot-tall birdcage plopped down in the middle of the marble arch at Washington Square Park. For the rest of the commission, the artist, who fled communism in China only to advocate for it here, slapped fencing around the Unisphere in Queens, which only made it look under construction, affixed more perfectly ordinary fencing to gaps between buildings, over windows at Cooper Union (indistinguishable from security grates), and to the back of bus stops. The whole thing had something to do with migrants and open borders or some shit. That same year he was commissioned to string up 14,000 orange life vests allegedly worn by migrants to the outside of a concert hall in Berlin.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, a city drowning in human feces, where visitors are advised to ditch the flowers in their hair and bring a hazmat suit, elected officials are busy with really important things: a heated debate on whether to tear down a George Washington mural in a public school. If recent public art commissions in the Sewer By The Bay are any indication, whatever replaces it will surely be a chromosomally-challenged wokeness buffet.
Last year, outside City Hall, the city installed 40 black sculptures of African tiki figures lined up like soldiers with their hands in a defensive posture, apparently an homage to those four white women pundits on CNN doing the ‘hands up don’t shoot’ thing, which now I’ve heard is a popular dance at weddings. The artist, a black British man, had never even been to San Francisco when he was summoned by the Arts Commission. Media called it ‘thought-provoking,’ ‘challenging,’ ‘pleasing to the eye.’
Woe betide the witless heathen who might disagree. Ugly, imbecilic, irritating, pandering, disingenuous, and intrusive are far more accurate descriptions of what’s being forced upon us in our once-great cities. And the artwork really sucks, too.