Sacramento’s embarrassing purchase of Koons sculpture is no boost for local art

An illustration of the sculpture by Jeff Koons proposed for the Kings arena plaza.

An illustration of the sculpture by Jeff Koons proposed for the Kings arena plaza.

My wife and granddaughter shared in the excitement of this year’s Chalk-It-Up Festival in Sacramento by joining 200 local artists in transforming squares of sidewalk concrete into colorful artwork. The annual event serves as a fundraiser to promote youth art programs in the area.

Never once did I hear them mention they were inspired by artist Jeff Koons, that darling of the elitist and speculative world of modern art. His $8 million sculpture for the new downtown arena did not motivate them to hunch over their labor of love for two days or induce them to contribute $100 for the privilege. The contentious debate over the expenditure of $5 million from the city’s Arts in Public Places program to help buy Koons’ creation did not enter into their minds. For them, and I’m sure most others, it was art for art’s sake.

I bring up these points because there is an invidious, self-serving campaign afoot to hail the purchase of the Koons sculpture as a catalyst for local art activity in the past year. This is especially insulting to area artists, who got shafted in the arena art-selection process by a cabal of self-indulgent local power brokers who confuse obscene prices with quality art.

The chutzpah of these folks is amazing: they hog most of our public art money, inflict upon us a pricey artist known for his “monuments to vapidity,” imply they have brought world-class art to this little hick town,  and take credit for the vitality and productivity of our long-struggling arts community.

In the Sacramento Bee’s promo piece for today’s unveiling of the Koons sculpture, Shelly Willis,  chairwoman of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and a prime mover in shepherding the Koons deal through City Hall,  boldly calls the purchase a catalyst  for  the Sacramento Mural Festival, the Art Hotel, the creation of a stunning mural under the W/X freeway and the recognition of homegrown artists across the country and world.

“(The Koons debate) gave us an opportunity to talk about our values, to talk about our environment and what we want it to look like, and it gave people the impetus to get together and talk about art,” Willis said. “And it hasn’t stopped.”

Rather than an exercise in Athenian democracy, the Koons deal had the smell of big-money interests, especially owners of the Sacramento Kings, muscling another self-serving deal past a compliant City Council. The cost of the new arena, shared by the city and the Kings, generated a $5.5 million fee payable the Arts in Public Places program. That was more than enough for local artists to produce excellent art for the arena area.

Instead, we have a piece of meretricious art that will define Sacramento for years to come.

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The point of pie-throwing is to degrade and humiliate the victim

Mayor Kevin Johnson

Mayor Kevin Johnson

All those folks who think the assault on Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson Wednesday night was lighthearted political theater should reflect on the words of attacker Sean Thompson: “Pie throwing was the least violent action I could take.”

Such violence against a public figure is a breaking of the social compact, points out New Republic writer T.A. Frank in a trenchant essay titled “Is Pie-Throwing Ever Morally Justifiable?” Watch videos of such incidents and one quickly sees no one is laughing, Frank says. “Invariably, the response of the gathered crowd is alarm followed by disgust. A whiff of chaos, of a broken social compact, is in the air. Everyone is shaken.”

The point of pie-throwing is to degrade and humiliate the victim, to rob them of their dignity, Frank says.  And that degrades the rest of us, too.

Dignity is a tricky concept, hard to define. But it’s central to many religions, and it’s mentioned in numerous international conventions. The Geneva Conventions famously prohibit “outrages on human dignity.” What separates civilized nations from barbarous ones is that they treat all human beings, even the enemies that they kill and the criminals that they punish, with dignity. (If prisoners of war were to have custard pies pressed into their heads upon being taken into enemy custody, decent people would see it as a sickening humiliation.) It’s also what separates civilized people from bullies and brutes.

What’s threatened most by pie-throwing incidents, Frank warns, is ordinary decency and openness. We’ve lost a lot of that already in this election year, and we shouldn’t make light of it in Sacramento.

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Hail to the mayor

Mayor Kevin Johnson

Mayor Kevin Johnson

Way to go, Mayor Johnson. I’m glad you still have the reflexes at 50 to ward off an attacker bent on doing who knows what kind of physical harm to you. I’m sure it was scary to be grabbed by a stranger and slammed in the face at a public event. How can you know in that split second what might be coming next?  Who but a fool or a coward would wait to find out? In a world of victims, you showed the virtue of standing up for yourself.

I don’t know what to make of those who vilify you and minimize the attacker’s actions. How can you be called a thug and your attacker cast as a prankster? Imagine if a Trump supporter went after Hillary Clinton and she responded with a swift kick or two. Would anyone but a deplorable call her a thug in a pantsuit or condemn her for failing to understand the cultural connotations of being pie’d? More likely, there would be a swelling chorus of “You go, girl!” And rightly so.

When do we get to see the highlight film, or are you saving it for opening night at the new arena?



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Ready for the flight to heaven

angel-wingsIn glancing through the obituaries in Wednesday’s Sacramento Bee, I noticed that an 87-year-old woman had “gained her wings 09/09/16.” Further down the page, I saw an ad for the Angel Care funeral home, complete with fluttering wings above the name.

As an avid reader of the obituary pages — sometimes called the Irish sports pages – I’m accustomed to seeing angel imagery used in regard to children. But evidently, some adults subscribe to the belief that heaven-bound souls turn into angels. And that seems odd because I don’t recall the nuns or priests of my youth painting beautiful pictures of heavenly wings. In fact, their depictions of heaven were rather bland compared with their graphic descriptions of the torments of hell. I was not the only 5th-grader who was left trembling by Sister Francis Claire’s accounts of the eternal torture chamber.

In doing some online research, I came across a clear-cut answer from the Rev. Billy Graham. A writer to his evangelical Christian website in 2006 posed this question: “My sister lost her small son a little over a year ago, and on the anniversary of his death she put a poem in the paper to remember him. It said something about him being an angel now. Is that what happens to us when we die and go to heaven, that we become angels?”

“No, we don’t become angels when we die and go to heaven,” the Rev. Graham stated in no uncertain terms. Angels and humans are separate types of beings.

As explained in the website Compelling Truth, “Humans are physical beings with a spiritual soul, made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Angels are spiritual beings (Hebrews 1:14) who can only become physical if God ordains that their work requires it. Humans are born with a sin nature and sin throughout their lives. Because of this, God arranged a plan of redemption that angels can’t even understand (1 Peter 1:12).

Of course, if I had stayed up with the Catholicism of my altar-boy days, the words of the Apostles’ Creed would have come immediately to mind: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

The resurrection of the bodies of all who have died when Christ returns to Earth is an essential doctrine, says the website Catholic Answers. As the apostle Paul declares: “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Cor. 15:13–18).

Not so, says retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. The author of the 1994 book “Resurrection: Myth or Reality?” told Religion News Service, “I don’t think the Resurrection has anything to do with physical resuscitation. I think it means the life of Jesus was raised back into the life of God, not into the life of this world, and that it was out of this that his presence — not his body — was manifested to certain witnesses.”

What I’ve learned from all this is that the Irish sports pages can take you on some far-out excursions.





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Better to light a candle than curse the darkness

candleI’ve lived a life of one-liners. I grew up hearing pearls of wisdom like “seize the day” and “to thine own self be true.” In college, I was exposed to the world’s great literature and stockpiled enough quotations, aphorisms and poetry to last a lifetime.

I’ll admit that I don’t always adhere to a quote’s original phrasing or its contextual meaning, as pesky copy editors through my journalism career have informed me. Long ago, I learned that Ralph Waldo Emerson did not say “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” It is  “a foolish consistency” that’s the problem.

When faced with unpleasant choices, I like to break through my indecision by invoking Martin Luther’s call to “sin bravely.” The phrase seems to capture the emotional essence of dealing with a situation in which you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. When I was handling the religion and ethics beat for the Sacramento Bee, I tossed this out one time in humorous fashion to a Lutheran minister. He looked perplexed initially, then noted the phrase was “sin boldly.” It was not a call to sin, he said, and really needed to be understood in the theological realm of forgiveness, grace and redemption.

Aside from such pitfalls, my quotation stockpile has helped me get through the challenges of different stages of my life by bringing a sense of order to confusion and uncertainty. In college, I fell into the dreaded “sophomore slump” and retreated hastily from the far-fetched career plan I had scoped out for myself. I couldn’t make sense of who I was or what I was doing in college. Then I came across a poem by the 19th-century writer Matthew Arnold that contained an image summing up my malaise: “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.”

I wrote it down on a slip of paper as “I feel I am wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born” and stuck it in my wallet. I carried it with me as a talisman until I graduated.

In my 40s, when relationships and career goals foundered, I found morose solace in by repeating a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” It ends this this way:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Thankfully, I weathered that storm, emerged in my 50s with a more upbeat outlook and found a good woman who became my wife.

Now that I have turned 70, my mind goes to some lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding” that I first came across in college:

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

I will leave it to academic scholars to interpret what these lines mean in Eliot’s Anglo-Catholic spiritual view. To me, they suggest a long journey that ends with an understanding of what life means.

I like to think that’s true, but maybe Eliot was just using words to ward off the darkness ahead.

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