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Art for the Artist's Sake?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Walking by the U.S. courthouse here in Little Rock, a flash of metal outside impinged on my vision, though not much on my consciousness. From a distance, it looked like a pile of leftover construction materials. And indeed the courthouse had just acquired a spiffy new addition.

Not until I saw the story in the paper ("Harsh judgment passed on courthouse fountain") did I realize what that pile of shiny stuff was: a water fountain.

Excuse me, a Water Feature. It has a name, as befits a work of art: Echo Dynamics.

Well, sure. That fits right in with Greenberg's Rule No. 17: The more pretentious the name, the less satisfying the product.

Echo Dynamics. It would make a fine name for a corporation that makes steel tubing, or maybe recording equipment. But by any name, the new fountain hasn't been getting many rave reviews.

To quote Her Honor Susan Webber Wright, the judge who served as liaison between her colleagues on the bench and the committee that chose the artist: "I'm just horrified by it. It wasn't what we ordered."

In the diagram she was shown, the judge recalls, there were benches and trees, and the end result "didn't look like structural steel." It was supposed to be "an oasis, a soothing place for the public to come by and enjoy the spot, and it certainly has none of those attributes."

Her Honor was also horrified by the cost: $391,000. Her verdict: "That is shocking." Well, Your Honor, maybe not so shocking. This was, after all, a federal project.

All the critical reviews sent me back to the courthouse to see what the fuss was about. Just to check out Echo Dynamics in the ferrous flesh.

How describe it? A series of banked troughs, it bears a vague resemblance to a urinal, though without as clear a function.

Viewing it up close, you can see what Echo Dynamics was intended to be: a kind of low-slung, metallic waterfall. But the sound of the water, once you can hear it above the traffic, is more a sanitary gurgle than that of a natural spring.

The fountain's shape may have been intended to reflect the Romanesque curve of the courthouse's new addition, only it doesn't curve. It's jagged, like a brittle metal W set down in a concrete cul-de-sac. Its straight lines jab at each other instead of melding. It kind of hurts to look at it.

It isn't the fountain/water feature/steel trough that offends so much as the leaky prose used to describe it. Note the wince-inducing language produced by Ms. Tye DeBerry, a senior adviser somewhere within the U.S. General Services Administration's Arts in Architecture program.

The agency's purpose: "to facilitate a meaningful cultural dialogue between the American people and their government." Facilitate. Meaningful. Dialogue. Certain words are a sure sign that atrocious prose is being committed. And here they were all lined up in a single phrase.

To quote Senior Adviser DeBerry on Echo Dynamics, "the work shapes and is shaped by its surroundings." Actually, it just sort of lies there like a big old, forgotten pair of pliers left off to the side of some completed project. I didn't see it shape its surroundings or anything else while I was there. Or be shaped by them, more's the pity.

There's more of this kind of language from Ms. DeBerry, if you can stand it: "Thin sheets of water moving through the stainless steel channels animate the plaza both visually and aurally." I think she means we're supposed to see and hear the fountain/trough.

What we have here is another sad example of the widespread artistic exhibitionism that doesn't serve the public so much as the artist's need to make a statement. Or money. (Why not both? It's the land of opportunity.)

The new fountain is one (debatable) thing. But whoever is responsible for the words used to justify it shouldn't be let near the English language. It's not language so much as wordage. This kind of verbal assault on the mother tongue - no mod art show seems complete without it - would make ordinary profanity come as a relief. It brings to mind a passage from "Pictures from an Institution," Randall Jarrell's still relevant, and still delightful, little satire on the academic life:

"Some of what she said was technical, and you would have had to be a welder to appreciate it; the rest was aesthetic or generally philosophical, and to appreciate it you would have had to be an imbecile."

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