Christine Allison Considers the Age-Old Debate About Taste and Propriety
When selecting a piece of art for your front yard—in my case, a headless bronze nude by Brad Oldham—remember, too, your aesthetic obligation to the neighborhood.
I have a question. Do I have the right to place a sculpture in the front yard knowing (now) that it gives my neighbors the creeps? I realize this is Texas, and it’s my land, and I can do anything I please. Still.
To be clear, I did not set out to terrify the neighborhood. And intentions do matter—although in matters of art, I suppose they matter less. That said, the work in question is (legitimately) good. A bronze nude, neither human nor inhuman. Oh, yes, it has no head.
The sculpture sits just beyond our front door in the very spot that inspired its creation. Picture a 300-year-old live oak, its arms open wide, rooted in an expanse of tight-fisted vines. It served as a muse for artist Brad Oldham, who one day, after a visit, stopped and sat on the vines and stayed there for hours. I didn’t know about the sit-in until a few weeks later when he came to the door with drawings and a prototype. Oldham is a warm, down-to-earth character, and he was gracious, offering numerous “Don’t worry if you don’t like its” to make it easy for me to sidestep the awkwardness created by an unsolicited sculpture.
Except it instantly resonated with me. When I showed it to my husband, he, too, was affected. The piece has a Giacometti-like sensibility—a form that’s gaunt and ravaged. It’s not what one might call cheerful, and that might be part of the problem. In the Park Cities, outdoor sculptures tend to be happy-hearted—an elephant that sprays water, a huge (and I mean huge) horse with a cowboy on it. There’s a charming family of teddy bears. A life-size statue of a kindly man sharing a book with his grandchildren. By contrast, our sculpture conjures the Holocaust. When I showed the prototype to my daughters, who were young at the time, I wondered if they might find it too serious—too adult. They loved it.
And so we commissioned the piece. The installation, I concede, was unfortunately timed. Within days, beheadings of American contractors began to take place in the Middle East, and the sculpture appeared to be a literal interpretation. I like the headless aspect of the sculpture; it adds to its pathos. But it isn’t about beheadings. How to explain? At that moment it occurred to me (for the first time) that this was not just our sculpture—passers-by would view it, too. It was now part of the neighborhood landscape. Sure enough, joggers slowed down—and even came closer to see the sculpture. Older people, walking with nurses’ aides, paused and shook their heads. Children, on their way to school, would see it and run for their lives.
I hadn’t thought about this for a while, until last Halloween, when some neighborhood kids propped a carved pumpkin head on the sculpture. It was an excellent prank. But it got me thinking again about art in context, the aesthetic obligation to neighborhood, the arbitrary but exacting nature of good taste. Obviously, one would not hide or remove art just because it is misunderstood. Further, when I pad out barefoot for the morning paper, the sculpture arouses in me melancholy and tenderness. I think there is prayer in that. But that is not how every person responds. And I am sure that if a neighbor within my view had a ceramic goose dressed in a scarf, or a flock of coral flamingos, I might shake my head. Or run for my life. Certainly, I would be unhappy about it. Which is why this is a question I still think about.