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  • In Brief
Spirit Poles and Flying Pigs: Public Art and Cultural Democracy in American Communities, Erika Doss. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

One of the perplexities in contemporary art is that so much of the critical information is coming from the artists. No longer trusting to the possibility of history, artists have been creating their own histories, providing their own critiques and declaring their own importance. Public art, for example, remains a nebulous ideal in contemporary art practice, yet many artists have rushed in where critics have feared to tread, and have proclaimed the innovation of recent endeavors of public art; notable among these artists has been Suzanne Lacy, who has created forums and academic panels and books, in addition to her own intriguing mixture of performance, installation, and sculpture. It is with this in mind that Erika Doss’s study of recent public art, Spirit Poles and Flying Pigs, is especially refreshing. As a curator and art historian, she is able to maintain objectivity, weighing both pros and cons in regards to a wide range of art projects going under the rubric of “public art.”

Doss’s book begins with an overview of why public art has become such a focus for controversy, from all sides of the political spectrum. She then goes on to deal with the problems of defining public art. In Chapter Four, “Sculptures from Strip Mines,” Doss discusses earthworks; her dissection of the interrelationship between artistic autonomy, public space, and the impositions of artistic practice on democratic consensus is masterful.

Quite frankly, the more reasoned her arguments grew, the more impressive the book became. This is an excellent analysis of what is happening in the arts, taking into account aesthetic critique, sociological implications, economic considerations, political impact, and cultural meaning. It’s such a well-balanced book: the lucidity of Doss’s arguments is bracing. It’s so rare to find a work about such a loaded topic as “public art” which doesn’t get shrill and partisan. An example of Doss’s insightfulness: “The number and nature of recent public art controversies suggest that many Americans have opted to vent their frustrations, and their inherent ambivalence about how to deal with social problems, by assailing public culture. [End Page 114] If the mercurial complexity of contemporary life seems unfathomable, if real life problems seem insurmountable and experts appear irresolutely unresponsive, the simple presence, the ‘thereness,’ of public art is a solid, knowable target.” I don’t think anyone has yet come up with a more elegant and erudite analysis of one particular segment of the contemporary art scene.

Of course, there’s always a “but”: though extremely even-tempered, the book never quite veers off into any tangent of excitement. In short: you’re not going to get a rush when you read this book, the way you get a rush when you read certain critics at their best (Manny Farber and Arlene Croce, for instance); instead, you’re going to get an incredibly well-documented, even-handed, fine-tuned critique which is, ultimately, genuinely illuminating.

—Daryl Chin

20th Century Italian Drama: An Anthology. The First Fifty Years, Attisani, Antonio, and Jane House, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Before the publication of this handsome anthology, few tools were available in English to anyone interested in acquiring a comprehensive view of the development of Italian drama in this century. With the exception of Pirandello, surveys of twentieth-century European drama generally under-represent the Italians despite their important contributions. There have been a number of plays translated into English, but beyond the work of Pirandello, Ugo Betti, and the Futurists, most of the translations were originally published in journals and have long been out of print. Much of this neglect has now been remedied by the Attisani/House anthology. For the present, the book is available only in a hard-cover edition; a more accessible paperback will follow, hopefully, in the near future.

The authors and plays represented in the anthology include: D’Annunzio, Sogno d’un mattino da primavera (A Spring Morning’s Dream, 1897), first translated into English in 1902; Marinetti, I vasi communicanti (Communicating Vases, 1916), Vengono (They...

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pp. 114-117
Launched on MUSE
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