The continuing debate: What is art?

An image of the proposed 9/11 memorial that was rejected Wednesday by the Philadelphia Art Commission.

This week’s Public Art Commission hearing, specifically the portion devoted to a proposed 9/11 memorial, was a lesson in civic and aesthetic discourse.

Jeffrey Little, a contractor with no art background but with political connections, sketched the design on a napkin and gained the approval of Mayor Nutter and Democratic party boss Bob Brady, plus a plum site in Franklin Square.

As The Inquirer’s Inga Saffron reported, “But the Philadelphia Art Commission hated its design — a cartoonish, half-scale Liberty Bell strung between nine-foot replicas of the Twin Towers.”

“Mending Liberty" was fast-tracked by the Nutter administration and, if built, would become the second 9/11 memorial in two years. Why the hurry? In a June column, I noted "this is not a mayor, or an administration, known for fast-tracking much of anything. While Nutter constantly promotes his commitment to transparency, this process was far from open."

Earlier this summer, the commission gave a list of suggestions and offered to work with Little and his partner, Stephen Saymon, a first responder who collected artifacts from the three 9/11 sites that would be incorporated into the memorial.

The partners followed the committee’s lesser recommendations but not the the major ones — doing away with the replicas of the towers and Liberty Bell. “Everybody likes it as it is right now. That was my rationale for not changing it,” a visibly agitated Little told the commission at the Wednesday meeting in the Municipal Services Building. “You have six people who don’t like the towers and a whole community that does.”

Probably more than six.

But the meeting launched an interesting discussion by commission members as to what is art and what is popular.

It isn’t as if Philadelphia doesn’t have a lot of bad art and buildings. There are some really wretched murals within blocks of the Municipal Services Building, itself a brutal design with few admirers.

Plenty of tourists are photographed in front of the Rocky statue without ever enjoying the masterworks inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

As for the literal nature of “Mending Liberty,” which commission members took exception, Claes Oldenburg has two major works nearby, “Clothespin” and “Paint Torch,” which are oversized renditions of their subject matter, to say nothing of the large, charmless playing pieces plopped around the Municipal Services Building plaza.

A reader observed that that memorial's imagery is flawed. Little's design has commerce, in the form of the towers, supporting liberty, when it should be the other way around.

And then there's the location. Franklin Square already has a memorial to fallen police officers and firefighters. Another memorial might risk the crowded square being turned into a graveyard of sorts. Does it make sense to incongruously place memorials, a place of somber reflection, this close to a playground, carousel, miniature golf and a burger shack?

The meeting was also a clash of old Philadelphia and new, the way business has long been done, knowing the right people, and how the city is trying to be more deliberate and transparent in approving lasting works that matter.

Little stood and excoriated the commission. "You didn't want this from the beginning. Let's vote," he said, as if he was running the hearing.

And then board did, 6-0, to reject the design.

Little and Saymon can appeal the commission's unanimous decision to the Licenses and Inspections Review Board. Which means the debate over “Mending Liberty” may not be over yet.

--Karen Heller