AS CRIMES GO, this one was so low on the scale of severity that you’d probably have to give it a featherweight rating. That probably makes it heavier than the brain of the moron who perpetrated it. But you also have to wonder what extremes of ignorance, alcohol abuse or twisted motivation lead a person to vandalize artwork on display in a public place.
The work of six local sculptors now graces part of the wide grassy strip along Hudson Avenue in Chatham where the train tracks once ran. The pieces range from whimsical silhouettes of wild animals to abstract constructions, all of them scaled to fit comfortably in this open stretch bordered by the road on one side and on the other by the paved pathway that runs from the traffic light to the Price Chopper plaza.
The pieces will stay there into the fall and then they’ll go away, leaving behind memories that will survive without the aid of a gazillion bits of image data that few people will ever see again. It takes more than data to capture the charm of a modest exhibit like this one. You have to experience it for yourself.
One of the pieces is Lisa Solomon’s “Katharos” made of acrylic tubes sprouting this way and that from the ground. That’s the one some lowlifes damaged last Friday night, pulling up several of the tubes and making off with them, while breaking one and leaving it behind.
Now maybe the person or people who did this didn’t have it in for the artwork at all, and maybe he or she didn’t even know what it was. Maybe this Einstein thought these were some really big version of those solar-powered garden lights that have popped up around so many homes, including mine. He might just have wanted to light up the entrance to his cave. So if anybody sees a place with an unlit tube that’s two or three times larger than those commercial lights, call the police and ask them to pick up the culprit. Then again, it may be possible for the cops simply to follow the trail left by the knuckles of the vandals dragging along the ground.
Or maybe not. People involved with this project say they know of posts on a Facebook page that threatened to destroy these sculptures. That makes the episode sound far more ominous than some sort of spur-of-the-moment outbreak of clueless destruction. Threats online need to be taken seriously, and the police should check out the allegation to determine whether it’s true. If it did happen, it amounts to an intolerable form of intimidation.
Some folks undoubtedly dislike these sculptures for all sorts of reasons. Tastes vary, and aside from what they think of the artistic merits of the pieces, there may be people who don’t believe they belong on public property along a major thoroughfare. I believe we should have more art to look at in public spaces, not less, and I’m willing to print the views of those who disagree. Let’s talk about it.
But when the political leaders we elect in a democratic manner authorize artwork on public property, nobody has the right to tear it down just because he or she doesn’t approve. The only legitimate way to have that artwork removed is to use the democratic process to get rid of it.
It’s safe to assume that anybody who thinks otherwise probably won’t read this, so alerting the vandals that they’re acting exactly like extremists–the Taliban come to mind–doesn’t achieve much more than therapeutic venting. But I hope most people in this community still believe that we need to preserve the right to free expression, even forms of it we don’t find particularly attractive. And in that sense this case offers a reminder of one of the duties of citizenship in a free society.
All of us have an obligation to make it known that small incidents like the vandalism of this artwork must not go unanswered. The police have their job to do, but beyond that, you and I have a responsibility to drop by the exhibit, to say by our presence that no matter what you think about its aesthetics, this exhibit here and now belongs to the public–to us.
No one has the right to deprive us of our freedom of expression. And nobody can unless, by our indifference, we let it slip away.