The dog walkers were among the first to express outrage.
Lee Freeman, a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art and an undergraduate Christo, had got permission from various agencies to temporarily block the park in Mount Vernon Square with gold-painted chain-link fence. It was a conceptual piece intended to stimulate thought about public spaces.
Brother, did it.
An article on the artist by The Sun’s Abigail Tucker has one of the longest tails of comments from readers, and it is the comments, not the work of art, that provoke some thoughts about public discourse. The public is in a snit.
Some of the complaints were reasonable enough. Residents of Mount Vernon were irritated at being deprived, even temporarily of the use of the open space. But then the storm hit. Some of the elements:
We weren’t informed
The fencing project went through channels for approval, and while there were no public hearings, there is some dispute about how widely residents were informed. (My own experience in the newsroom is that people don’t pay much attention to the memos.)
That damn kid
Mr. Freeman comes in for considerable abuse in the reader comments: The little twerp, this out-of-town elitist, this snotty college kid, who does he think he is? People scream obscenities at him when he’s in the square. My generation, subjected to hostility toward the young 40 years ago, has matured into ... expressing hostility toward the young. That, of course, oversimplifies; there’s also class resentment about supposedly privileged college students to factor in.
That other stuff
Insofar as the discussion is about aesthetics, and not much of it is, it regularly broadens into ranting about unrelated works, most particularly the Male/Female statue in front of Penn Station.*
There have been denunciations of the Maryland Institute for harboring and encouraging the artist, and I’ve seen at least one vow to withhold contributions from the Walters Art Museum for its encouragement of the project.
There’s a lot of rage out there, and it’s not particularly discriminating in its choice of objects, and not particularly proportionate. I don’t much care for conceptual art, including Christo’s, and, with all respect to Mr. Freeman’s intentions, I find his project puerile. But I’m neither qualified to be nor interested in being a censor of public art. I, too, like to walk in Mount Vernon Square (though I generally have to keep my head down to watch out for all the dog excrement on the sidewalk). But I can tolerate a temporary inconvenience without risking an apoplexy.
It’s as if the nastiness that has marked political discussion for the past generation has spilled over into other areas. And the Internet, including newspapers like The Sun that permit unmoderated or lightly supervised comments by the public, fosters and facilitates expression of such nastiness. I leave it to the psychologists to determine whether giving voice to rage and resentment vents them or stimulates them, but I suspect the latter.
But if you, dear reader, find yourself consumed by anger, I give a practical suggestion for you: Get a ticket to a ball game. The great thing about sports competitions is that they don’t matter. The fate of the Republic is not at stake. One’s standard of living and place in the social order are not at risk. Somebody wins, somebody loses, nobody gets shot, and it all happens again the next day. Moreover — this is the important part — a ball game establishes an environment in which it is both socially acceptable and harmless for people to scream their lungs out, express contempt, utter threats and generally act abusively.
Take in a game. Then go home and see whether you can be civil.
*Actually, though I am not particularly fond of aluminum as an artistic medium, I’ve grown rather to like Male/Female (pictured below), and so has my wife. The glow from it is cheerful when I drive up Charles Street after dark. This appears to be a minority view, given the persistent clamor against the statue since its erection. So, in an exception of my practice of authorizing nearly every comment on this blog, I will carve out a small area of protected expression. If you like Male/Female, you can say so in a comment to this post, and I will suppress any comment attacking you.