TCS Daily

Artists Without Pier: A Dissent

By John Stone - November 17, 2003 12:00 AM

In a recent article for TCS (see: "Artists Without Pier"), Sidney Goldberg makes a number of highly disparaging remarks about the decaying piers in New York City along the Hudson River in the 60s, calling them "eyesores" and "junk." He also attacks The New York Times for their Metro Section article, suggesting that the newspaper's editors "dug up a few sophisticates -- mainly architects -- who find sublime beauty in this piece of dreck." The gist of Goldberg's article, then, is that the piers are ugly as sin, only a few architects have anything good to say about them, the Times is often guilty of rounding up an elite cognoscenti who are out of touch with popular opinion, and that there is no aesthetic value in the piers. Goldberg writes, "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."


The piers in question happen to be some of my favorite landmarks in New York City. I am not an architect, nor would anyone lump me in a crowd of artistic cognoscenti. I know a thing or two about the history of art, but I tend to follow the un-pretentious tautology, "I like what I like."


Goldberg writes that he and his wife frequently drive by the piers on the highway; whenever other passengers accompany them, they invariably agree that the piers are among "the worst eyesores in the city." First, I do not believe anyone could come to a proper judgment about the piers while viewing them from a distance, whizzing by in a car. I'm not suggesting everyone would agree they are beautiful, or anything of the kind, but they obviously deserve a more proximate and prolonged gaze before being dismissed outright.


As it turns out, I have experienced the opposite phenomenon to that of Goldberg and his wife: every time I ride my bike by the piers with a friend, or bring tourists to see them, they have only positive things to say. In certain instances, my companions' praise is spontaneous, issued before I have spoken (a sign I have not influenced their opinion beforehand). After my letter to The New York Times appeared suggesting it would be a terrible artistic loss for the city if the piers were torn down, I received a number of calls and e-mails from strangers who shared my opinion. None of us is an architect or art critic. I could not say exactly why each person responds so positively to the decaying structures, but the very existence of our common appraisal undermines Mr. Goldberg's basic premise that no one but "sophisticates" likes them.



The question of whether and to what extent if any the piers possess "artistic value" is more difficult. What is more tedious than shouting matches over the value of a given work, manmade or otherwise? Can anyone prove these piers have intrinsic value? No. True objectivity, a remote if not impossible prospect for humans, is further distanced in questions of aesthetics. Just consider the voices of impassioned critics who have denied the virtues of William Shakespeare, J.S. Bach, Pablo Picasso, and Merce Cunningham, ostensible pillars in their fields. The best we can hope for in such matters is an inter-subjective consensus (approximate) of open-minded and sensitive people, preferably with some background in the subject they are judging. Of course, mass agreement is no more a guarantor of truth or "rightness" than anything else we have on earth.


For me, the question of whether these abandoned piers are in some sense "works of art" forces an issue that is unfair since they were not created as such, and also reduces them to only one field of potential appreciation, when I believe they deserve respect on a number of planes. For one, they are an interesting part of New York City history, remnants of a bygone era, rapidly giving way to bland and modern construction such as the Trump residential buildings that have sprung up in their midst. To be honest, I am neither aware of their initial purpose, nor the reasons for their abandonment. Nonetheless, they have a quirkiness and odd beauty that is not like anything in the present-day city and are fascinating if only as the ruins of an antiquated metropolis.


The rusted, twisted and falling piers possess what the Japanese call a "wabi-sabi" quality, a lonely and bittersweet beauty of things passing away. The Japanese tea masters originally applied the term to rustic earthenware, but they also frequently used it in describing fading or deteriorating structures. On the one hand, viewing these structures fills me with a visceral sense of mortality and decay. This is exquisite bitterness, a dose of imperfection and decay in the middle of forward-looking, pristine architecture.


But there is also sweetness. I cannot help but smile and look in awe at the remarkable geometric patterns time has wrought of steel bars and girders. In the larger, standing structure, my eye is sent running in every direction in three dimensions, the jutting grids demarcating the empty air inside and roughly echoing the curve of the river and the bike path as well the lines of surrounding and distant buildings. The impression changes according to one's position; from in front, the listing frame is dominant, while from the sides, the jagged horizontal lines take sway.



Meanwhile, the southern pier contains a more organic quality, as opposed to the dimensional and geometric splendor of its partner. Almost invisible from the bike path, one has to seek it out more actively. It lies on the ground in an immense heap of rolling and twisted metal, far closer to chaos than the neighboring, fractured order. Sitting on the water, the bulging metal girders have amazingly taken on the form of a long, crashing wave. I don't care whether nature or man or some combination of the two made this structure, but it is uncanny in its strange beauty. I must agree, from above and certain angles, it is not attractive by any means -- the unwitting planners who made the wave pier didn't account for every sightline. But from the sides, it is both awesome and freakish, a rolling and restless motion, frozen in time.


John Stone is a composer and writer living in New York City.

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