So I’m sure at this point that everyone has seen them; it’s kind of hard not to. They’re balls. Four of them. They are each bigger than a person, and they are sparkly and vaguely teletubby-colored. And apparently almost 1800 people are mad as hell about them.
I’ve rarely seen such an eruption of dialogue on this campus (and no lie, it brings me great glee), and certainly never over anything so innocuous. But there’s an incredible deal of anger about them, ranging from the money spent on them to their clash of aesthetics with the architecture to just that they look like aliens landed on the grass. So I figured, being a senior art major at this school, I might as well clear up a few things:
First, the money. That seems to be the biggest problem everyone has; but what they don’t realize is that the money spent on them could not legally have been spent on anything but public art. Not elevators, not computers, not scholarships, not art supplies for students. It’s part of a program called Percent for Art. Check out New Jersey Statute 52:16A-31. According to this, any new public building created at the expense and for the use of the state must incorporate a fine arts element, costing no more than 1.5% of the total cost of the construction of the building. The four balls are only about .67% of the cost of the new Art and IMM building. Furthermore, there are some other things to consider: these are a permanent installation, not a limited-time exhibition or one-time performance. Read over the SFB article every week in the Signal; the price of the balls has been far exceeded by one-time several-hour concerts – for example, the allocated total funds for this year’s three concerts and four comedy shows came to $225,000 and $120,000, respectively. Keep in mind that while everyone pays over $200 a semester for activity fees, only a limited portion of the campus community attends any of these given shows – under a thousand people, in fact, because Kendall Theater and the Mayo Concert Hall can’t accomodate any more than that. Meanwhile, these are pieces that are permanently accessible to everyone, at all times.
Which brings me to the next point of contention, which is that they are an eyesore. Honestly, I feel no sympathy for people tooting this horn. I’m sorry, is your Disneyland campus ruined now? (And that’s only half-sarcastic – TCNJ boasts in its prospective student brochures that they consult extensively with designers from Disneyland to craft their campus aesthetic.) Is the subtle balance of pseudo-colonial architecture constructed within the last fifty years and recently lead-free astroturfed sporting fields that severely interrupted? Does glitter really piss you off that much, make your blood boil and your pulse throb in your temple? Were you previously reveling in a joyous bubble of red brick, twiggy trees and shrubs, an experience now forever lost? (And on that note – do you know how much those pretty little trees cost?)
Another point to keep in mind is that this is the first piece of public art on TCNJ’s campus. The first. Ever. For all that it boasts of its fine reputation, even deigns to call itself a “public ivy,” it is the only college in the state that I can think of that has been up to this point art-free – take a quick drive down 206 to Princeton and witness the multiple pieces strewn amongst a campus even more firmly set in its historical aesthetic. My younger sister goes to school at Stockton, a more humble college, and yet they too put us to shame – for all that their buildings look like college-ized high school buildings, their campus has seen fit to make a point of including statuary. Fuck, Panera Bread has more public art than we do. As far as looking out of place goes, they’ll have a more logical context with future pieces of art to come.
Meanwhile, Willie Cole is an internationally-renowned (far from unknown, as some have been claiming) prominent African-American artist, a recipient of numerous awards who very recently had a solo show of his work at the Met in New York; he has work in the Met, at MoMA, at the Whitney.
As far as I’m concerned: I like ‘em. I’ve never been a big fan of the pretentious super-collegiate architectural facade this school so values, and I love that these pieces are such a departure and contrast. Sure, I think the justification sent out by John Laughton (Dean of the School of Art and Communication) is a bit of a stretch; I get what they’re going for conceptually, with the spheres representative of a basic shape which forms the armiture of more traditional work in drawing, painting and sculpting, and the individual colors representative of individual pixel colors which together comprise a digital work. But I don’t think it needs to rest on that; I think the real strength of this work lies in the fact that something so innocent, so innocuous, so utterly harmless and uncontroversial has created the biggest uproar in my time here. They are far from aesthetically unpleasing art – gosh darn it, they’re down right… pretty. Just straight-up pretty. I’m not sure how much further one can push the concept of “pretty” than sparkly purple, pink, yellow and blue. Trust me, there’s plenty of more traditional art that’s just downright fugly (while you’re in Princeton checking out their outside public art, stroll into the gallery, up the flight of stairs, and spend a little time in contemplation in front of “The Pasta Eater” by Luca Giordano.)
And if you’re one of those people who, infuriated by the presence of the balls, has come to question the need for artists in society, and has even been driven to advise them to “get a real major, like accounting”: first of all, back away from your computer, throw out your iphone, rip off your clothes and run out of your house – sorry, none of those products you’re surrounded by would exist without an artist in charge of their design. You’ll have to take to foraging hunter-gatherer style, unless you don’t mind touching that artist-designed food packaging; and once you get to the register, you’re screwed. That stuff you’re pulling out of your wallet? That stuff that accounting revolves around? You know, money? That’s the most art of all – the grandest of conceptual art pieces! – simply a piece of paper with some carefully arranged lines, with absolutely no inherent value (unlike clothing, or food, or shelter), just that which everyone has decided to agree on and honor in daily trade. Suck it up, bitch! We live in a visual culture.
And as a Dutch lady once said, “Since when is having some balls a bad thing?”