TCS Daily

Artists Without Pier

By Sidney Goldberg - September 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Two or three times a week my wife and I drive down the West Side highway to the Lincoln Tunnel for a brief sojourn in New Jersey, often as not to visit one of their super-dos to buy lower-taxed produce. Invariably, no matter how many times we have said it before, when we pass the two rotting piers at 62nd and 63rd streets, one of us says, "Why doesn't somebody clean that up?" On occasion we have a passenger in the car and, with no exceptions and no qualifiers, the passenger always agrees with us that it is, if not the worst, certainly one of the worst eyesores in the city. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being pure ugliness, it's a 10.


Sure enough, the New York Times dug up a few sophisticates -- mainly architects -- who find a sublime beauty in this piece of dreck. They dress it up in aesthetic mumbo jumbo. The "reporter," Fred A. Bernstein, whose story appears on the front page of a recent Metro Section, writes: "Two rusted metal piers, directly west of Lincoln Center, have been dazzling audiences with a forlorn pas de deux. One, at 63rd Street, has listed and twisted into a riot of acute and obtuse angles. The other, at 62nd Street, has melted into a sinuous mass that the landscape architect Thomas Balsley compares to spaghetti."


I would like to see this landscape artist sell a piece of this rotting pier to a home owner for placement on the landscape in front of his house.


"I'm quite enamored of the spaghetti pier," said Mr. Balsley, the designer of Riverside Park South, which runs along the Hudson River below the Trump Place apartment complex in the 60's. "The next phase of park construction will include a raised overlook, and it would be great to be able to look at the pier from that elevation -- it's an amazing sight."


I'm certain all of you readers have at one time or another seen a piece of rusting steel construction. That's all that this is, nothing more. It is quite different from an "objet trouve," a beautifully shaped rock or log that was created by nature. The artistic cognoscenti are calling the rotting piers wonderful examples of "accidental artworks."


New York City's commissioner of parks and recreation, Adrian Benepe, is a member of this group and vows the city will not clean up the rot while he is in office. But he does offer one superb insight. He told the reporter that the piers were "as good as anything created by artists in the last few decades." What a sorry appraisal of the state of sculpture over the past half century -- no better than a couple of rotting steel piers.


If these steel piers have artistic value, then think of the treasures that must exist in the east Bronx, where discarded automobiles are put into giant compressors and flattened for shipment to scrap metal dealers, who presumably drink in their beauty before consigning them to the furnaces or whatever.


If these pieces of junk constitute art, then what is NOT art? If everything has artistic value, then nothing has artistic value and we don't need the word or the concept. It is then on the same level that everything is a "thing," which doesn't add much to distinguishing the elements or our universe.


This Times article is important because it typifies what's wrong with the staff of tastemakers at the New York Times. If too many people like something, in the Times's eyes, it can't be very good. What the Times likes, more often than not, is what most people detest. Do you remember the days when graffiti despoiled the subway cars of New York? Virtually all of the subway cars, not only the steel facings but the windows and the advertisements inside the cars, were sprayed with indelible ink that defied all efforts at removal. They were devoid of any meaningful content; most of them were merely coded names and numbers, of interest only to other young lunatics who risked their lives in the tunnels with their compulsion to spray.


All subway riders hated the graffiti. It was not only ugly but also demonstrated that the city couldn't police its own property and couldn't serve the public in the way it was supposed to. Sure enough, as the public raged against this desecration, the Times wrote several editorials explaining that graffiti comprised certain artistic values and were the self-expression of an underclass that rode the New York subways (usually not paying a fare!). The Times apparently has forgotten its old position on graffiti, which it eventually reversed when new techniques came along that made it more feasible to erase the defacements. The Times, moreover, never acknowledged that it once had sided with the vandals. (At the peak of the graffiti activity, incidentally, the Times had posted a notice in an internal elevator used by staff editors and reporters that anyone caught defacing the elevator would summarily be fired.)


Now, would Donald Trump please clean up those piers if the city won't do it, and the city can pay him back in ten years when we might have some money in the coffers again.


Sidney Goldberg is a frequent TCS contributor.


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