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.