Monday, January 31, 2011

Yeah, but is it art?

Photograph of the piano in a Florida sandbar by Nicholas Harrington

Sixteen year-old Nicholas Harrington's Biscayne Bay piano is now sitting in storage somewhere; "rescued" last Thursday by Miami musician Carl Bentulan.

Some are comparing Harrington's "Piano in the Bay" to Christo's 1983 "Surrounded Islands."

It's easy to see why some would comapare the two.

Harrington put his piano on a sandbar that's just a stone's throw from some of the 11 spoil islands that Christo surrounded with six and a half miles of pink fabric.

Harrington has said that he "wanted to create a whimsical, surreal experience." Those words were also used to describe Christo's "Surrounded Islands."

But, for many, that's where the similarity ends.

Harrington's "work" came about after a raucous and drunken New Year's Eve party.

Christo - according to a 1983 Miami Herald article - was allowed to wrap the isands only after "obtaining 10 permits, enduring seven public hearings, meeting challenges by scores of environmentalists, and making numerous court appearances during 30 months of preparation."

One footnote: before Christo proceeded, his workers removed 42 tons of garbage from the bay.

But, the comparison of Harrington to Christo intrigued me.

In a town where a guy like Romero Britto can make a comfortable living selling "art" that looks like something you might see in a child's coloring book and where giant, molded pink snails are deemed "art," is a piano on a sandbar art?

Well, is it?

Yesterday I emailed a dozen or so people in search of an answer.

Many of their responses surprised me.

CRAIG PITTMAN: Environmental reporter, St. Petersburg Times. Author of two books including "Manatee Insanity, Inside the War Over Florida's Most Famous Endangered Species."
"As long as the piano's provenance was a mystery, it was art in the best sense -- it forced people to think about the role of humans in the natural world, and our relationship with both found and manufactured objects. Once the mystery was solved by the kid coming forward, it became nothing but a prank -- a bit of bizarre Floridiana but not Cristo by any means. Still, I enjoyed how the whole story played out, not least because it reminded me of one of my favorite music videos from back when MTV used to show videos: "Close to the Edit" by Art of Noise. Maybe we could round up a squad of prominent Miamians to take the grand piano back out the bar and take it apart in a grand way, while someone else tries to play a song on it. You could call it deconstruction...or, if you prefer a musical pun, decomposing."
BRIAN SMITH: Former Miami Herald photographer, now a celebrity photographer. Smith's book, 'Art & Soul,' featuring portraits of celebrities paired with their handwritten testimonials about the importance of the arts is due out this October.
"Is it art? Without a doubt. The act of artistic creation is not limited to canvas or clay. That the artist intentionally chose to place a piano on a sandbar in the bay as an artistic statement makes this art rather than littering...Art raises questions. Art can make you smile. The artist has successfully done both."
PHILIP BROOKER: "Brooker is an artist, illustrator, furniture maker, filmmaker, and the founder and director of the Miami Poster Project. He was the art director and an illustrator for The Miami Herald for 23 years."
"Most things can be called art. (that's another topic.) Squiggles that go for millions thrill art lovers everywhere, but they are just squiggles...So I think the answer to your question "is the piano on the beach art?" is, everything can be called art, yes. But it's more in the happening kind of art. (Never my favorite.) More to the point is it good art? And my answer is No! It's a fun, silly, very Miami. A piece of nonsense, not unlike Art Basel."
JIM MORIN: Miami Herald editorial cartoonist, Winner of a 1996 Pulitzer Prize.
"That the question of whether or not this is "art" is even being considered goes to show how pathetic and idiotic the "art" world has become. If this was considered an art project as opposed to an innocent prank, it would be as trite and unoriginal as much of what passes for "art" in this town. Learn how to draw. Learn how to paint. Learn how to sculpt. Learn how to write. Then use those skills to communicate the inexpressible using your own unique voice. That's the way it's been done for thousands of years. If you think it's going out of style, you're wrong."
MICHAEL PUTNEY: WPLG Channel 10's senior political reporter.
"Any comparisons between a prankish high school student and Christo are absurd. Christo is a world-renowned, remarkable artist. I had the privilege to cover “Surrounded Islands” and think it was one of the most exciting public art experiments ever conducted in this country. And quite beautiful. Putting a movie-prop piano on a sandbar has a cuteness factor, but it ain’t art. Art is what an artist does. Nick Harrington is an appealing kid, but he’s not an artist. Not yet anyway."
"RICK": Publisher of the South Florida Daily Blog.
"Excuse the cliche, but I'm of the opinion that art is truly in the eye of the beholder. I see it as art. A piano sitting out in the middle of Biscayne Bay with the Miami skyline behind it....very cool."
ALFRED SPELLMAN: Producer, Rakontur Films.
"I loved it, thought Miami got a lot of great media coverage. I don't know if I'd call it art. I'm sympathetic to the environmental managers' concerns and have no idea how they'll prevent copycats. But it's a lot cooler than trying to call a parking garage a work of art".
GENE WEINGARTEN: Columnist, Washington Post. Former editor of the Miami Herald's Tropic Magazine. Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. Weingarten won his first Pulitzer in 2008 for his essay about commuters' reactions to seeing a world-class violinist playing outside a busy Washington subway station at rush hour. Wrote Weingarten: "In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?"
"Well, Duchamp sort of established it CAN be art. Ooh, someone should reverse Duchamp: Put a grand piano into a crappy public mens' room, near the urinals. You can have that for free."
NICK SPANGLER: Former staff writer, Miami Herald, now at Newsday in New York,
"I don't know much about art or its history but as soon as I heard about this I thought of Duchamp and the "readymade," mass-produced objects exhibited in gallery space.

The piano could be understood as an inverse phenomenon -- a crafted art object placed in natural space -- with a similarly jarring effect.

While Duchamp put a made-up name on the most famous readymade, the urinal, I think people knew pretty early on who was responsible for it; on the other hand, the "authorship" of the piano was, for a while at least, a neat mystery, along with the question of how the heck it got there.

People's responses to the mystery-- the theorizing and news stories about theorizing -- were at least as interesting as the sheer spectacle of a piano in the middle of Biscayne Bay.

If you don't think something like this is funny and you don't like someone littering the bay, you call it a prank; if you like it, you call it conceptual art."


  1. The Christo art irritated me because it was unnecessary -- those islands were already art. Why add paint to the Mona Lisa? But you know what? I loved the mystery island piano, especially in 21st century cynical Miami, where real mysteries are few and far between. I think the photo of the piano player on the nighttime skyline is art of the highest order. Where can I get a print?

  2. Does it provoke me? Make me see or feel something differently? Cause me to scratch my chin, raise my eyebrows, ponder it on the drive to work, discuss it at dinner?

    The photograph: probably not. But if I came across the scene outdoors, absolutely. -Gretchen


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