commentary (2007-15)

A failure to communicate the value

Wet Paint

by Matt Edens

What role does public art play in a dynamic, evolving downtown? Depends on what one means by "public art," apparently. The occasional abstract sculpture plopped down in an office tower plaza? Yep, Knoxville has its share.

The city's taste in such things does, however, tend to run more traditional than abstract, as exemplified by Church Street's "Man in the Boat" (which, by the way, makes a fine backdrop for selected recitations of Suttree ) or, in the former Whittle Courtyard turned Federal Courthouse, the sculpture a lawyer friend refers to as "The Severed Head of Justice."

Then there are the odd fundraising things that crop up. I recall a time when downtown's sidewalks sported more artificial bears than, say, actual pedestrians. Not that I minded the bears--some of them were fairly well executed, even if the idea was a knockoff of other cities' efforts. Pity the city never really capitalized on clandestine marketing potential, though. Combined with downtown's serendipitous intersection of Gay and Union, "Come see our Flamboyant Bears" could have been the slogan Knoxville needed to unseat Asheville as the San Francisco of Appalachia.

Appreciation of other forms of public art depends largely on the audience. The city and Keep Knoxville Beautiful's recent anti-graffiti effort comes to mind. I can certainly understand why volunteers slathered red paint across assorted locations across town. (Although I am intrigued by the choice of color: Was it a silly play on the old cliché? A simple, Operation Petticoat coincidence of cost and availability? Or a nod to the fact that said painting occurred during Passover?) However, like others who've long lurked downtown, I am a little perturbed by their choice of canvas.

No, I'm not going to defend Knoxville's budding Basquiats. In part because most tags seem to be variations on the SAMO, as Basquiat's signature put it. Nor am I all that persuaded by the argument that, when it occurs without a property owner's permission, such vandalism is still a valid form of artistic expression. That isn't to say that some graffiti isn't technically impressive or, at times, amusing--often unintentionally, such as the carnal comments about "hoes" once spray-painted under I-40's Sixth Avenue overpass. (Who knows, maybe the artist actually had some sort of farm implement fetish.)

Rather, I'm irritated by the fact that volunteers painted over one of the few places downtown where artists actually had the property owner's permission to ply their skill: the plywood put up by Scott and Bernadette West over the widows of their building along Wall Avenue. The plywood was always supposed to be temporary (as was other, similarly decorated plywood that, prior to renovation, once secured several of their properties on the square), but I always thought their sanctioned graffiti was an interesting short-term solution. It certainly caused me to linger and look on occasion (the same can't be said for CBID-funded Potemkin Village facades that once graced much of Gay Street).

Had the plywood outlived its usefulness? Probably so. And, as I understand it, the red-paint crew, like many of the original artists, had the property owner's permission. I can also see why, due to its high visibility, the wall was earmarked for the red paint treatment, to better send a message that tagging will no longer be tolerated downtown (even if, due to the wall's visibility, taggers tended to avoid it).

But unlike most of the tags on masonry walls, bridge piers and such, the plywood along Wall was easily replaceable. The art upon it wasn't. Too bad Keep Knoxville Beautiful didn't borrow a page from the Arts and Cultural Alliance's bear project, pry the plywood off the wall, cut it up and auction off the artwork. The money raised could have easily covered the plywood's replacement. Originals of Brian Pittman's intricate architectural renderings of cathedrals have fetched upwards of $500 in some instances. And I shelled out almost $100 at Vagabondia awhile back for a print of one of Cynthia Market's coy coquettes ( has also started carrying a framed version of one of her prints for $159). Her originals on plywood, the medium she typically works with, can be worth considerably more. It makes me wonder: With a little imagination, Keep Knoxville Beautiful could have cleaned up downtown, promoted local artists and perhaps made a little money in the process.