Half Past the Month: ‘Helmholtz,’ a Return to Reality

June 19, 2013

This is about my Indiana city’s inferiority complex. First, though, consider the issue of modern art — specifically “Helmholtz,” a 10-ton reddish orange outdoor sculpture toppled in a late-night car crash.

Now, some believe there is a relationship between art, specifically nonobjective art, and progress, e.g., economic development, i.e., money. In my city, that position can be traced to a 1980s notion that without adequate cultural life, the hip wives of wealth-generating CEOs would nix relocation to our midsized Hoosier town.

Indeed, officials from the city and the art museum this week were quick to assure us that the sculpture would “return to its glory” even if it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Considering the original commission to Marco Polo di Suvero, the 79-year-old New York artist and amateur welder, plus installation and relocation, that could make it a near million-dollar project, all told.

That is wrong on many levels. Let’s start with the obvious debunker that today women are themselves CEOs. They may not have time to immerse themselves in the cultural life of us locals, be it authentic or postured.

Second, Dr. Maryann Keating, a South Bend economist and adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is convincing in her recent column that what makes a city economically attractive is not modern art or even economic-development programs: “Good cities and towns are safe, attractive, create a good environment for rearing children, and provide an educated and industrious labor force.  . . . Given these conditions, prosperity is not guaranteed but has a good chance.”

There is also a psychosocial argument. It will be obvious to astute investors that an Indiana community with such a low opinion of itself that it imagines a piece of 30-year-old Soviet-era “girder art” could be its deal-maker is woefully led and a dangerous place to invest time or money.

City officials need just two mechanisms in their tool kit, Dr. Keating advises, neither of which is a finely tuned appreciation of nonobjective art. The first is a realistic assessment of local conditions and the second is a consistent rubric for decision-making.

Roger Starr, a member of the New York Times editorial board, devoted a chapter of his New York history to that thought. It was his thesis that the elite there got so caught up in the “all is relative” spirit of nonobjective art that they lost judgment, tempting financial ruin:

“It is not overreaching to suggest that when the institutional leaders of a city make modern painting and sculpture their most prized art form, and when they devote as much time, intelligence and, not least, money to its pursuit as the New York leaders of the postwar world did, they demonstrate a set of values that endangers those needed to keep an urban polity on a firm, reasonable and safe course.”

Starr, formerly New York’s housing commissioner, contended that modern art is contra productive to the degree it influences government decision-making. “Sympathetic critics of nonobjective art ascribe meaning in portentous statements that the intracanvas artifacts allegedly express,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, real life cannot survive on portentous statements; it requires the knowledge that iron is hard, and exactly how hard, and how much harder it is than flesh. It is the value of precisely such discrimination the canons of nonobjective art condemn.”

To prove the point, “Helmholtz” (or at least its welds) buckled in a low-speed crash in the wee hours of the morning — no match, at least, for a more reality-based work of art, a 2013 GMC Sierra truck, manufactured, incidentally, at the plant just inside the county line.

At the wheel, we speculate, was an art critic. We say that because “Helmholtz” was fully 50 yards off the road in the middle of a downtown park. It might have been a statement, not an accident.

If so, the man deserves a medal, even keys to the city. He resolved our inferiority complex. We make our money off trucks, not artistic statement, and we’re proud of it. — Craig Ladwig



Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D. “Economic Development? Try Common Sense.” The Indiana Policy Review, April 22, 2013.

Julie Crothers. “Righting a Toppled Icon: Repairs to Prized Sculpture Could Run $300,000 and Take a Year.” The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, June 18, 2013.

Roger Starr. The Rise and Fall of New York City. Basic Books, Inc. 1985.



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