In this era of continuous discontent and discord, it was predictable that putting public art decisions to public votes would surface as an idea in the Idaho Legislature. The proposal (HB 311) is before the House; if it passes there, it would still need Senate and Gov. Brad Little’s approval.
Let’s think this through a bit. While it may seem logical to give voters the up-or-down decision on expenditures for public art, it’s better for Idaho to trust local community arts councils, local arts commissions, city councils and county commissions to review public arts ideas. Their decisions and choices are generally right in line with their own community standards and tastes. You’d be hard pressed to think of a single otherwise example in Idaho.
The bill’s author says his motivation is to give such public expenditures a democratic voice. (Idaho Press, 2/25). Apparently, some Lewiston-area citizens don’t appreciate the “Canoe Wave” sculpture at one city entrance, nor the cost, which came to about $100,000. (Lewiston Morning Tribune, 3/4.)
But there’s nothing offensive about the art itself. This is no Christ statue in a jar of urine, no sexual obscenity in sculpture, no painting of anatomy, no depiction of “alternative” lifestyle. Nada. Nothing.
That’s true of most other public art displays all across America. We seem to veer, if at all, toward stylized renderings of historical figures, locations and events, such as Twin Falls’ city hall sculpture of John Hayes, the city’s original surveyor; the I.B. Perrine sculptor at the Snake River Canyon overlook; or the iron horse at a Twin Falls intersection which reminds us of our history; or of Pocatello’s Old Town murals. (ISJ, 8/3/2019).
Let’s suppose the tables were turned here and Moscow residents voted and approved a sculpture depicting amorous college lovers in a close embrace. Moscow being a college town, one could argue such a rendition would likely be both historically and currently accurate. While the bill may have the underlying intent of suppressing voyeuristic images, the “lovers” scene would stand under the bill’s provisions if it had two-thirds voter approval and cost at least $25,000.
The issue raises the broader question, what’s the purpose of art? The English essayist D.H. Lawrence writes that “through art, we may be brought to live many lives…and each may have so many fields of life to wander as to never feel wretched and empty.”
Southern Idaho is blessed with many panoramic landscapes and vistas; early traveling artists often remarked on its wondrous scenes. The region’s character for public art often reflects our natural beauty a well as our common heritage. For example, an excellent large reproduction of Thomas Moran’s painting of Shoshone Falls (1900) is on display at Twin Falls city hall. It cost $7,500, well below the bill’s proposed threshold.
Also in Twin Falls, at the City Park, a monument of basalt boulders arranged in a ragged circle on a base of native Oakley stone plates, with their inscriptions and water seeping down, seems a fitting sculptural summary of Southern Idaho’s founding and heritage. It represents a known past of strain and effort, the unbroken rock of he region.
Artistically, this is the most unusual public sculpture in Southern Idaho. It’s a five-boulder placement from which water flows; an appropriate symbol for the valley’s settlement and reminiscent of Stonehenge in its circular form. Engraved sayings and quotations on the rocks speak to our heritage and present-day life.
The display itself is a horse-drawn, single bottom plow, guided by hand, the handles retaining the smoothings of weather, time and the sweat of the hard labor.
Draft horses are gone today except in show arenas, though they numbered in the thousands at the time of settlement. Work gloves are still in daily use everywhere, but modern farm equipment has replaced some of the hand implements of earlier farm life.
But the recollection of these times remains in both individual and community memory, often the residue of childhood, carried later in life from a far-back place and remembrance. It also so with villages, which then grow into towns and cities. They change, but they remain in memory changeless and enduring.
Some last longer others. The engraved sayings on the Twin Falls stone monument are already showing weathering, the simple deterioration of time, leaving some almost unreadable after fewer than twenty years. No matter; they will be here long enough. The land was transformed, shaped, put to both common and individual use and thereby built and sustained a community, culture and heritage. The same can be said of Pocatello’s Main Street murals or Lewiston’s “Canoe.”
In Twin Falls’ case, it is the simple pair of work gloves, set on the plow’s handle, placed as if the owner planned to return shortly and again take on the unsparing soil. Those gloves say, in effect, there is no work beneath us, no work unworthy, only tasks yet ahead. In their simplicity, they remind us of where we have been and what we have accomplished throughout the Magic Valley by this labor, this plow, this hardened rock, this water, this alkali soil, these stones, this land.
Why would we want to subject that heritage to the vagaries of an up or down vote? Place and remembrance are hard enough to preserve in this fractious world. We shouldn’t make that even harder. “The past is never dead,” says the novelist William Faulkner, “It isn’t even past.”
Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee. Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of two new books on Southern Idaho, “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” and “Spirit of Place: Southern Idaho Across Generations.” He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com.