There are about 7.5 billion people on the planet.
Subtract those without running water and electricity – and those equally unfortunate to live under anti-Western totalitarian regimes – and you have roughly 4 billion people who may have heard of Augusta, Ga.
If you were to poll that cohort, I suspect most would identify Augusta with one thing: golf.
That’s because, like it or not, we host the world’s premier golfing event and are the world’s No. 1 innovator and exporter of the golf cart.
I say “like it or not” because some community members obviously dislike, perhaps even despise, this inextricable connection to a sport popularized and predominantly enjoyed by middle- to upper-income men of European ancestry – a demographic to which most of the world, and much of this city, does not belong.
Augusta’s love-hate relationship with its global brand manifested itself recently when a handful of local artists were rubbed the wrong way by one of the concepts outlined in the city’s new Public Art Master Plan, which contained a downtown public bench/bike rack/solar-powered phone charging station called the “Art Cart.”
The plan calls for each cart to be decorated by a local artist through a “call for proposals” system similar to how the “Art the Box” initiative decorated dozens of traffic signal boxes throughout town a couple years ago.
It’s not the public seating or cell-phone-charging aspect of the Art Cart they don’t like , it’s that the structure itself is based on the chassis of an actual E-Z-GO golf cart, a locally manufactured vehicle that shuttles the aforementioned Eurocentric men round golf courses worldwide.
This is irrelevant to most people but highly relevant to “artists.” I’ll attempt to explain a little later.
For most people, the genius of the Art Cart – in addition to its obvious utilitarian purpose – is that it creates the “sense of place” downtown Augusta currently lacks. As a global golf mecca, shouldn’t we at least have some thematic public art that gives a nod to who we are?
Aiken has its horses. New Bern, N.C., has its bears. Chicago has its cows. Let’s face it: golf is our game. Our rapidly emerging cyber industry is not going to change that, at least not anytime soon.
This city could come out with a slogan to explicitly downplay its golf heritage (“Augusta – More Than Golf!”) but it would only highlight it more. If an act of God somehow obliterated the land centered at 33.5021 degrees north latitude and 82.0226 degrees west longitude, Augusta would forever be known as the place that “used to host the Masters Tournament.”
Though some lambasted the Art Cart concept on social media and hip places artists congregate (read: bars and coffee shops), only two felt compelled enough to physically visit the offices of the Greater Augusta Arts Council – which helped fund the study – to express what Arts Council Project Manager Pax Bobrow termed their “reservations” with the concept.
“Most people have been very excited about it,” she said via email. “We’ve had a number of artists communicate to us that they are working on designs for the proposal.”
Those proposals, by the way, are due June 16. The community should be thankful Textron Specialized Vehicles, E-Z-GO’s parent company, stepped up to provide the vehicles on which the Art Cart is based.
I, for one, believe it will be a success. I believe visitors and residents alike will come to adore the carts in the same way Parisians adore the Eiffel Tower (something once considered a monstrosity). But I also believe the Art Cart installations will always be irksome to some members of the arts community.
And that’s because, generally, the more popular art becomes to the masses the more unpopular it becomes among the creative culture’s most devout. Art from people not artsy enough (as if such a thing were possible) gets relegated by the critics and tastemakers to the “bad art” bin, where artists such as Thomas Kincaid, Danielle Steel and Celine Dion reside.
What appears to be of utmost importance in the art universe is being celebrated by the “right” people – the aforementioned critics and tastemakers.
If the nebulous and razor-thin line between transcendent and trite confuses you, don’t be alarmed, it just means you probably view the world through a fairly conventional prism, i.e., you like or dislike art because you genuinely like it or don’t, not because someone with supposedly more artistic credibility (whatever that means) deems the art good or bad.
Art criticism, at its core, will always be highly subjective and often illogical. To illustrate, I’ll use an example of two rock bands I enjoyed in my adolescence: Guns N’ Roses and X.
One was very commercially successful (the former) and one was not (the latter). Neither band hailed from Los Angeles – Guns N’ Roses was 2/5ths from Indiana; X was ¾ths from Illinois – but each wrote a searing song about about that cradle of multiculturalism from the perspective of a white Midwesterner. Guns N’ Roses’ song was “One in a Million”; X’s was simply called “Los Angeles.”
Both songs contained racial slurs and railed against minorities, immigrants and homosexuals. X scored bonus points for anti-semitism and class-warfare, but superficially the songs are one and the same.
Critical reaction, however, was vastly divergent. “One in a Million” was widely lambasted as a bigoted diatribe while “Los Angeles” was celebrated as a street-level portrayal of the City of Angels’ grittier side; Rolling Stone even ranked the album No. 24 on its 100 best albums of the ’80s list.
“One in a Million” was “bad art” mostly because Guns N’ Roses was one of the most popular bands of the decade, and possibly because many critics believed its lyricist, Axl Rose, was the embodiment of everything he wrote.
“Los Angeles” was “good art” because comparatively few people heard it outside the ultra-sophisticated club of tastemakers. It also helped that the album was produced by former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, a person giving the band oh-so-important artistic “credibility.”
So if the Art Cart is going over a speed bump on the way to becoming “credible” downtown public art, it’s not because it’s not a good idea – it just because not enough of the right people like it.
But that doesn’t necessarily have to matter to everyone else. You can sit there, charge your phone and enjoy the Art Cart installation as much as you like.
And if you want to listen to Guns N’ Roses, or even Celine Dion, while you do so, more power to you.
Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or email@example.com