Art from the Swamp

“Art from the Swamp: How Washington Bureaucrats Squander Millions on Awful Art,” by Bruce Cole. Encounter Books, 2018. 152 pages, $23.99.

Outrage is the milk upon which the American public suckles. We watch cable news networks, listen to talking heads and some even read current event books (most of which are outdated before they even hit the shelf). It all shares a single mission: To let us know what to be mad about today. If the tone didn’t tip you off, I’m not a huge fan of any of these things. All this anger, outrage and divisiveness is doing no one any good, except for the aforementioned individuals whom profit off of it.

So it is with some surprise that I present to you a book on government corruption. But not your garden variety wasting X amount on Medicare, or frivolous regulation, or excessive benefits book. No, this one is about how the government wastes your tax dollars on terrible art. And it’s written by a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Two things attracted me to this. First, this was written by a person in the position to know the intricacies of the situation and not some blowhard talking head whose only job is pump out a sewer line of articles and books filled with his hot takes. Second, it is a wonderfully weird topic. Terrible, expensive, taxpayer-funded art.

The book starts with an in-depth case study of the soon-to-arrive Eisenhower Memorial on the National Mall by Frank Gehry. The whole project started as two paragraphs in an otherwise unrelated defense bill from 2000 authorizing $300,000 to be spent on constructing a memorial for Eisenhower.

In the decades since, the project’s cost has ballooned to well over $100 million. On top of the ridiculous price tag, the selection process raised a bunch of eyebrows. The normal process for selecting an artist was heavily modified in a way that suspiciously tilted the scales in favor of the committee chairman’s favored candidate who, from the very beginning of the process, he had spent a considerable amount of time talking up.

The cost continues to grow, and plans for construction continue despite a major public backlash. The fact that the selection of Gehry was suspicious and nobody wants the memorial seem to be entirely irrelevant to its construction.

Cole uses this memorial as a reference point for what he moves on to talk about. There is a lengthy section on how art is chosen for public buildings. There is the internal announcement, panel selection, panel meetings, Technical Evaluation Board meetings, official announcement, review of the field, board recommendation, first disbursement of funds, preliminary concept, final concept, second disbursement of funds, fabrication and final acceptance. Cole goes into detail on each step and points out the inconsistencies in each.

There is a lengthy appendix at the end with a spreadsheet of every single art and architecture commissioned artwork piece, complete with artist, cost, year and inflation multiplier. As a spoiler, the total adjusted cost from 1975 to 2016 is $90,118,908.06.

The main point that Cole wants to impart upon his readers is that the process for selecting the artist is so backwards that only a government committee could have thought of it. The artist for each project is selected before anyone has submitted a single design. After the artist is selected, then the artist gives a minimum of three concepts for the panel to choose from.

Not only is this putting the cart before the horse, but it creates a system ripe for abuse with panels being able to give commissions to trendy artists without having to decide if their work is really better than the unknown up-and-comers that the system is supposed to give a chance.

If you haven’t done a government commission or been noticed in some way, you won’t get an invitation. And if you don’t get an invitation, you have no way of doing a commission or getting noticed. It’s a system that favors the established and well-to-do, giving them a free ride without having to compete.

As I say with many topical books, this one is recommended if the subject interests you. If it doesn’t, I doubt it will change your mind. My only criticism is that I wish there had been a few more pictures. A couple of the sculptures he discusses are pictured, but it would have been helpful if all of them were. It wouldn’t add that much more space of the book and would have aided his point.

Aaron Pauls is a service technician for McKinzie Pest Control.

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