I’m a Ray-Ban ambassador, which means I get rad free glasses and occasionally go to events where I drink for free. I’m not an artist, and I’m not involved in government, I just like to keep the sun out of my eyes and look good at the same time. So does my opinion on the Michael Elion Perceiving Freedom sculpture matter? No, but seeing as everyone with an internet connection has something to say on the matter – without looking at any of the facts, I thought I’d have mine. Firstly, to put a few things in perspective, and secondly, to address something I think most people are overlooking – City Councillor JP Smith’s take on public art, and the fact that Michael Elion is being repeatedly commissioned for this sort of work.
Let’s get the Ray-Ban thing out of the way first, because it’s just the tip of the iceberg. While I’m not defending the brand – I feel they should have foreseen at least some negative backlash for attaching themselves to something like this, the fact is, that is all they are guilty of, attaching themselves to an existing project – a project the Nelson Mandela Foundation, ART54 and WDC approved. Ray-Ban had zero creative input, and they have not branded the sculpture, which just happened to be modeled on their iconic Wayfarer style. Would the public have made a brand association if Ray-Ban were not involved? Probably.
There’s not much more to say on their association. What should they do? They can’t remove the branding that doesn’t exist. Should they put out a release slamming the artist? I would hope not.
So let’s move away from that issue, and the glasses altogether. Let’s take a look at what the Cape Town powers that be term public art, and what they classify as ‘obtrusive art’ in a public space.
Yesterday @bobnessmonster (of Durban is Yours) brought this times article to my attention. It’s about Cape Town’s stance on art, and kicks off with a few comments from City councillor responsible for safety and security JP Smith, who said it was not the city’s intention to censor art, only ‘obtrusive art’. At the time of print (April 2014) the city had ‘removed a million square metres of dubious art – the equivalent of about 148 rugby fields.’
I’m going to quote directly from the article, because it reads like a joke.
Though the city promises to continue to “expunge” invasive and obtrusive art, plans are afoot to engender “a sense of love and happiness” by utilising the talents of artist Michael Elion.
He aims to turn Cape Town into the “city of rainbows”, complete with arcs of crystals and hearts.
A “road rainbow” is being tried out over Wale Street and Roodehoek, in the City Bowl.
More than 1000 crystals shimmer from lampposts and thousands more will be added.
The campaign has given momentum to Elion’s Secret Love Project, which offers – at no cost – to paint heart-shaped graffiti on Cape Town walls.
Elion sells heart-shaped stickers in all colours for people to put up for display across the city.
Smith said the only criterion for public art in Cape Town, whether graffiti, statues, or any other form of visual expression, was that it be displayed with the consent of the community and did not pose a threat to the public.
“Communities must have a voice as to what happens in their back yard.”
If you haven’t seen Elion’s work around Cape Town, take a look at this – which could be an outtake from Zoolander.
The above rings a few alarm bells for me. As far as I’m concerned, Smith and his council are treading a fine line deciding what is and is not obtrusive art. If the communities voice must be a factor in deciding what happens in their back yard, who decided that commercialised heart stickers are fine to stick anywhere you want, or that it was ok to hang thousands of crystals, or hearts that look like they belong at a wedding in 90’s Pretoria along one of the most iconic beachfronts in South Africa.
Or did the rainbows and hearts and crystals, and indeed the glasses, get signed off because they are pretty in a conventional sense, because they are safe, because they are, let’s be honest, fucking boring and soft. Ray-Bans involvement in the latest piece is to me, irrelevant. Hate them, love them, it doesn’t matter. What this whole thing has made abundantly clear is the fact that the public have no say in what they are being subjected to.
Smith and his team have decided on what they deem art, which means hearts and crystals and rainbows, and however much it cost tax payers for them to remove 1 million square metres of ‘dubious’ art – the most basic of which has more cultural relevance to the city of Cape Town than the collected public works of Elion.