Why Do We Hate The Crum Creek Meander?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Remember the last time something changed around you? How did you react to that? I would guess with confusion or even anger. No doubt those of you living in Willets felt out of your element when an additional curtain was added to the shower stalls. Negative emotions flowed: “The stalls are so small now!”, “It’s claustrophobic”, “What do they think we are? Sardines?”

No. Sardines are delicious; you are not.

Likewise, the Crum Creek Meander by Stacy Levy is not a carwash. For your reference, a carwash looks like this:


The Crum Creek Meander looks like this:

I know a lot has been written about the Crum Creek Meander. But the comparison of the work to a carwash should be stopped. That is similar to saying that a work by Mark Rothko is the same as your red bedroom wall just because paint is used on both.

Now I am not saying the Crum Creek Meander is a Rothko. The intended lighting at night is poorly executed, the thick lavender poles disrupts the flow of the vinyl panels, and the vinyl panels themselves could have been better crafted. But the Meander is not a hunk of industrial trash either.

The visual and aural experience that one encounters when standing in the middle of the work during a particular windy day is clearly indicative of a well thought out installation. Even the much maligned black vinyl panels purposefully block out the surroundings when you walk along the curvilinear forms into the eventual circle. It is immediately apparent that the piece is intended to be an interactive one;  however the only way students interact with the Crum Creek Meander seems to be destructive. Nonetheless, that is more than what can be said of other pieces of public art, where artists vulgarly shove static and impersonal figures in your face. When was the last time you took the time to look at a bronze sculpture of that famous person you are supposed to know?

I do not believe the people who dislike the Crum Creek Meander are really too concerned about whether the work is ugly or pleasing. While the campus is generally really nice to look at, there are parts of Swarthmore that are really ugly (i.e. Beardsley). But because they are already in our routines, they do not concern us. The Crum Creek Meander is different — it is the additional shower curtain to the shower stall that is Parrish Beach. It makes people uncomfortable because it disrupts their usual expectations of what a trek to Sharples or up McGill Walk is like.

Other complaints about the Crum Creek Meander note the similarity between Stacy Levy’s work and the artist pair Christo and Jean-Claude. While artistic value in the pair’s works is extremely subjective, Christo and Jean-Claude’s works have nonetheless been very influential in the the genre of environmental art. In any discipline — be it the arts, the humanities or the sciences — we seldom fault anyone for being influenced. Because doing so would be like saying Oppenheimer copied Einstein, or that Renoir imitated Monet.

It is unfortunate that by the time I arrived on campus, a loud opinion against the Crum Creek Meander had already been propagated on campus. From the pictures advertising the Braun-Hungerford debate to the Dr. Who video during freshman play, the Crum Creek Meander never had a chance to rise above the existing slander and give the freshman, some of who had never visited campus, a chance to evaluate it by itself. Sure the final verdict may still very much be against it, but now we will never know if the opinion we have now is essentially individually derived, or forced by social conventions. When everyone is echoing the same opinions, offering a counterpoint may seem like a social taboo, especially if you are a lowly freshman.

Also, accusations of wasteful spending may have been badly informed. When I went to the Braun-Hungerford debate, I was expecting the usual jokes that were leveled against the work. To a large extent that was what the “debate” was about. But an important piece of information that Professor Hungerford reiterated during the debate was that the William J. Cooper Foundation is paying for the work, and not the administration. If this is entirely true, student complaints of frivolous spending of funds are thus more or less irrelevant to this issue.

What about the placement of the work in our space, the space that belongs to us students? Shouldn’t we have a say in that? Where I came from (Singapore), the public does have a say in art that are in public spaces, and that led to books being pulped because they “promote a homosexual lifestyle.” I am going to go out on a limb here and say that, especially in the case of temporary art pieces, no, we should not have a say in its display. Unlike policies that affect the social and physical well being of students such as the recent alcohol policies, the scrutiny of the student body should not be heavily considered for art to be shown. To subject pieces of art to a vote by the student body, while democratic, is against the independent nature that is characteristic of contemporary artistic practice. As students of an extremely inclusive liberal arts college, we should know this. Calling for the work to be taken down earlier is akin to intolerance, it should stop.

Just like a paleo diet, a work of public art may seem unbearable at first (I really need my rice). But if you stick with it, you may actually see that it is not so bad after all. Before judging the Crum Creek Meander, I believe everyone should take 20 minutes off a nice afternoon to walk around and experience the sculpture. If you still do not enjoy it, then so be it. It is going to be gone in a few months anyway.


    • Thanks!!! I must say I really enjoyed this comment. I guess the black panels of the piece did too good a job of trapping me in.

  1. My thanks to the author for a well expressed perspective on the public display of artistic work. I enjoyed reading this piece and took similar pleasure from the sounds and movement of the Crum Creek Meander’s elements when near it while breezes blew. I also found it pleasing looking down at it from a second floor Parrish window as sunshine played on it. (And yes, it was a Cooper funded project.) -Maurice

      • Since I signed my name you can easily find out lots about me.(and even come to see me, though you’d have to give up your anonymity to do so.) I am happy to own what I write here by signing my name and I am free to express my opinions despite earning my salary here at the College. Maurice

  2. I appreciate your perspective, and believe it’s a pretty valid critique until you hit upon funding.

    At a bare minimum, as a piece of artwork, the Crum Creek Meander is a symbol. That symbol has grown to represent thousands of dollars, yes granted by the cooper foundation, that have gone to fund something that evidently doesn’t produce much social messaging. Instead, the piece stands in front of the dining hall in which many employees are struggling to make a living wage and have suffered benefits cuts. Even if the allocation of funding could not be changed, this symbol of money spent is certainly rude and dismissive to our staff and our students who are barely making ends meet.

    That aside, art can be valuable, right? And, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Swarthmore is an institution that claims to care about social injustices, and many of the cooper grants are awarded to awesome works of art that question the world and transform the beholder. Could 20k have been spent to better transform our school through art? I certainly believe so. Were applications for Cooper grants rejected? I really don’t know… but I certainly believe that Hari Kondabolu would have transformed the way more of our communities understand and process social issues with the funding from this project. Just because it’s the cooper foundation, doesn’t mean frivolous spending is no longer a concern.

    Furthermore, the irony in the Cooper foundation (which works in tandem with this elusive ‘administration’) supporting of a piece of work that is supposed to focus on environmental issues is vast. The college (its communications team, its board, Cooper folks, and many of its key decision makers) will tout the meander as an attempt to highlight the Crum, its beauty, and the pollution thereof. Yet, the college also has failed to take a supportive stance of fossil fuel divestment and mountain top removal. Though pollution of the Crum and fossil fuels divestment are clearly different issues, this project seems like lip service to some broad ‘environmental movement’. By paying lip service to this movement, the college can claim it doesn’t have responsibility.

    • Hi Moneys,

      I really enjoyed your response and it did make me think. However, my opinions remain unchanged.

      I shall attempt to clarify my stand on the irrelevancy of funding complaints. My point was that the William J. Cooper Foundation was made mainly to promote art and artistic education. You are misplacing your priorities if you choose to force the Foundation to be responsible on issues that are not within its scope. That is similar to telling a cancer fund to help stop whaling. Therefore, claims of frivolous spending are irrelevant because the way the money was spent was in line with the mission of the foundation and thus not frivolous at all.

      Just like how pollution of the crum and fossil fuels divestment are separate issues, artistic funding by a fund that was meant to do just that and the administration claiming responsibility for its past misdeeds are also separate issues.

      Your other point was essentially about how the money could have gone to a better artist. I think we can all immediately see the problem with this line of argument. It was rather confusing to read ” And, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ “, followed by a recommendation of bringing a comedian to campus in place of Stacy Levy’s work. While I shall refrain from passing judgment on an artist that I have never heard from before, your judgment of Hari Kondabolu is a subjective one. In line with the final point I made in the article before the conclusion, a person’s judgment or even the majority’s judgment should not determine the exposure of art.

      While it is a easy to say that funding art seem like paying “lip service” to a certain cause, by using such criticism so you are invalidating a large part of the artistic community. Sadly, art was never meant to directly do anything, and some famous pieces of art were made essentially for aesthetic exploration. I do admit my bias because of my personal attribution of value to art in itself, so in a sense, if your valuation of art in itself is vastly different from mine, I believe there is no reconciliation. We just have to live with our different opinions on what society needs.

  3. Instead of a car wash, then, would you prefer we say it looks like a toilet? Cause no matter which way you slice it this thing reeks of shit.

  4. Hi Damien,
    A few thoughts in no order after reading your article:
    – Most people have a routine, myself included. Routines includes destinations as well as the routes that take us there. We see the meander, and we also see flowers, trees, buildings, chairs, leaves; yet the meander still stands out. I feel it standing out after walking past it countless times, after it’s long been incorporated into my routine.
    – You mentioned the “independent nature that is characteristic of contemporary artistic practice”. Being an engr major, it sounds profound but I have no idea what you mean. I don’t know what attributes in contemporary artistic practice shields it from a democratic voting. Perhaps you can shed some light?
    – I’m guessing from your frequent reference to artists and artworks you’re quite knowledgeable, yet you should not expect any given Swattie to appreciate art at some level, no matter how inclusive or liberal the college is. I don’t spend my time contemplating bronze sculptures, just as I don’t think you know what you’re talking about when you used Einstein and Oppenheimer in an analogy. The meander was aimed towards not just people well educated to appreciate art, but a general audience. If there was just a portrait of the meander in some gallery at Swarthmore, I bet things would be different.
    – Your opinions as well as others’ are subjective. You can pick a car wash photo without drapes to make your point, and I can find car washes with varying degree of similarity to the meander. Just Google Image “car wash drapes”.
    – I did enjoy reading through your critique, though. Well organized and written.


    • Hi Bill,

      You bring up a good point on not expecting all Swatties to appreciate art at some level. While that is a valid point, it was not what my article was about. I was not forcing or expecting anyone to enjoy the Crum Creek Meander. My point was that whether art should be displayed should not be dependent on a subjective judgement.

      This bring me back to my point about democratic voting. I understand how this can be a touchy topic in a world where democracy is put on a pedestal as the most desirable system. To a large extent I personally agree with that sentiment. However that does not mean I am blinded to the fact that a democratic system does not imply a free system. The minority’s views are often oppressed by the majority. The “independent nature of contemporary artistic practice” basically means the emphasis on artistic freedom in contemporary art. I believe a democratic system of voting is destructive to this freedom.

      I really do apologize for the misleading picture. I searched ‘carwash’ on Google images and didn’t find one with the drapes on the first page. My bad! It was more for comical effect though, not meant to be the super serious part of the article.

      While I appreciate your enjoyment of my article, I do take issue to your assumption that just because I enjoy art, I do not have scientific knowledge. Granted, I do not know the intricacies of the Theory of relativity, but I can tell the difference between Pascal and Pasteur. It is especially ironic for you to make such an assumption when we are in a liberal arts college (where I intend to minor in Math).

      Thanks for reading it through and taking time to come up with your comment though. I really appreciate it!

  5. Honestly, the thing’s ugly. I know that it’s supposed to make a dynamic statement about something or other, and technically speaking it fills most basic categories that define art (needs effort to create, creative in some way), but then again “The Room” technically fills those categories, as does “Sharknado 2: The Second One” (which is exactly what it sounds like).

    Not to mention “Playboy” magazine. Some of the poses those models use apparently require quite a bit of skill and effort.

    Frankly, the sculpture’s mildly annoying, blatantly ugly, and downright confusing to anyone who doesn’t have a guide to explain to them how they should enjoy and appreciate it as art (as I did at one point). Even then, however–and here I speak from some personal experience–the sculpture remains ugly and pointless.

    And before someone tries to justify its confusing nature–I have personally talked to a local family who thought that it was some sort of interactive make-your-own-improvised-swing-set for young children, and used it as such. If the average suburban mother cannot understand your artwork, you’re trying too hard.

    Maybe I’m just a barbarian–I freely admit that I’ve never understood modern art in general–but apparently this viewpoint does represent at the very least a significant minority of Swarthmore students.

    And maybe we ARE barbarians with no appreciation of dynamic artistic statements about something or other. That doesn’t really matter. What matters is that student opinion is currently massively against the sculpture.

    So yeah. I think it should be taken down, and soon.

  6. Aside from the fear of someone walking into one of the too-close-to-the-path poles or the thought that someone would try to ride a bike through it and be cut to ribbons, it’s a work that remains unfullfilling because of materials.

    The April Fools spoof of it last spring was closer to what it should have been. The light plastic rustled and gave with the breezes (not to mention you could walk through the student version with ease… just like water) The heavy vinyl panels clacking in the wind of the artist’s installation are about as far removed from water as can be imagined. Durability trumped sensibility.

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