Who Decides What’s in Good Taste? More Hamptons Art Drama

Two recent large sculpture installations on Long Island have once again brought up questions about art, taste and the legality of displaying work others may not like.

Just last week, Hamptons artist Donald Baechler supervised the installation of a 30-foot aluminum version of his “Walking Figure” sculpture in a Westhampton traffic circle near Gabreski Airport, and the public reaction was mixed. Appearing like a monumental, tinfoil, as some observed, Mr. Bill (Saturday Night Live‘s doomed claymation character of yesteryear—OHH NOOO!!!), the piece is relatively innocuous and suffers more from uneducated, “my-kid-could-do-that” barbs than anyone actually claiming it’s an affront to their family values or delicate sensibilities. Still, many are calling for it to be removed or demolished—but wasn’t that to be expected?

It seems difficult to build just about anything in the Hamptons these days, let alone something as subjective as public art.

The company behind the Baechler commission, Rechler Equity Partners, says it’s a mark of distinction for their new Hamptons Business District near Gabreski, but not everyone agrees.

On the Greater Westhampton Chamber of Commerce Facebook pageKim Gregory-Williams writes, “I just don’t get it. You can’t put an ice cream cone out to attract business/visitors….but….”that” ..whatever it is….is ok???” while Inez MacDonald adds, “Did a triple-take yesterday when driving by there!!! And last year they gave trouble to a shopkeeper in town who had a fountain and flower garden in front of her shop. Wow. This is one extraordinarily unattractive sculpture.”

Of course, if something falls within the municipal code, there are no laws to dictate what is and what is not in good taste, barring those that deal with the pornographic or profane—and Baechler’s work is clearly neither of these.

When it comes to British artist Damien Hirst and his equally monumental sculpture “The Virgin Mother,” the lines are a bit more blurry. Real estate mogul and art collector Aby Rosen recently installed Hirst’s 33-foot, 13-ton painted bronze sculpture of a partially flayed (or anatomically revealed) pregnant woman, with exposed fetus, on the lawn of his Old Westbury mansion in Nassau County. Rosen’s neighbors were, as anyone could’ve predicted, up in arms—though in truth, “The Virgin Mother” is no more graphic or offensive than an illustration in a medical textbook. Each of us, after all, is made of flesh, muscle and bone.

Perhaps it’s the exposed breasts that offended people so much? Or is it the baby in utero that somehow smacks of abortion despite the fact that it appears safe and sound, if a little exposed, in its mother’s womb? (Photo below by jwilly on Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/jwillys/235701698/)

Damien Hirst "The Virgin Mother"

Damien Hirst “The Virgin Mother” by jwilly on Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/jwillys/235701698/

Hirst designed the giant sculpture’s pose, face and hairstyle to suggest Edgar Degas’ 1881 bronze “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years,” which, he makes a point of explaining, makes people uneasy. “It is kind of naughty; she shouldn’t really be pregnant,” Hirst says on his website, adding, “I wanted a feeling of that. Anyone who is pregnant looks old enough, that’s the problem.”

The New York Times reports that, in response to all the complaints, Old Westbury is holding a public hearing this month to discuss a proposed law that would limit statues’ height to 25 feet—despite the fact that Rosen’s Hirst is not visible from public lands, and only from a private road leading to his property and two neighboring homes.

No law specifically limiting statue size currently exists in the Hamptons codebooks, but a sculpture may be considered an “accessory structure,” which does have limitations.

Some may recall a similar case involving Larry Rivers’ famous “Legs” sculpture in Sag Harbor. When Vered Gallery owners Vered and Janet Lehr bought the legs—once installed at Smithaven Mall—and installed them outside their converted Baptist church home on Madison Street, some people were, once again, as expected, enraged. Sag Harbor officials went after the gallerists and ordered the masterpiece be removed in 2012, but it remains standing as the fight heads toward our highest courts. For now though, it seems the village may have backed off from their mostly unpopular crusade, and it may never actually see another municipal board or courtroom.

As Vered once said (I’m paraphrasing here), the “Legs” sculpture was no more of an eyesore than those inflatable snowmen so many of us suffer viewing on neighbors’ lawns during the winter.

And isn’t that the point? Is Rosen not within his rights to enjoy art on his own property? Many of the so-called McMansions wedged onto properties around the Hamptons are far more offensive than the physical embodiment of someone’s creativity and expression, are they not?

Public art has value, and without erecting something completely boring and homogenized, it’s very unlikely that the Hamptons Business District or any individual homeowner will find something that doesn’t at least offend someone. There are just so many other places to combat bad taste in the Hamptons, so, until someone proposes installing something truly profane or pornographic on our public streets, let’s leave art out of the fight.

"Legs" by Larry Rivers

“Legs” by Larry Rivers in Sag Harbor, Photo: Stacy Dermont

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