Paul Conrad's Santa Monica Sculpture: Local Art Appreciation 101

Saturday, 2 Feb 2013, 6:00:00 AM

Steve Stajich

Steve Stajich, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Steve Stajich, Columnist

Excuse the horrible image to begin a dialogue on art and its impacts, but… if tomorrow the Louvre burned to the ground and everything in it was destroyed for all time, would that news bump you much over your breakfast coffee?

Let’s say that economically you had no ties to the art work in the Louvre whatsoever. You never donated a piece to the museum; you didn’t even own a company that screened funny Mona Lisa t-shirts with hilarious captions like “That was great weed!” All that’s gone is the collective power of the Louvre’s treasures and what that meant to you… if anything.

I don’t need to argue that art itself matters; I trust the readers of The Mirror to ‘be here now’ with that thought. I’m using my fictional catastrophic example to address the realm of specific treasures. Perhaps I’m even wondering about the whole notion of art becoming treasure, and not just because it can be sold at a profit.

Here, it wouldn’t be wrong to talk a little about beauty. Certainly beauty is a component of art that is valued and treasured. Much of that beauty can be, for want of a better word, of the traditional kind. Other times, such as with a Warhol that has the added value of being a cultural metaphor, the “beauty” is something more complex but understood. And sometimes the ‘beauty’ is so strongly enmeshed with the time and intent of its creation that the object exceeds the normal parameters of “value” and “treasure.” It becomes precious in excess of either its ‘street’ or market value, as well as more meaningful than by simply being an artifact of its day.

Whoa! Paul Conrad’s pile of rusty chain links? Really? Yes.

Santa Monica has sensibly given Paul Conrad’s sculpture “Chain Reaction” what many are describing as a reprieve. The Conrad family and community members dedicated to saving the piece will have until Feb. 1, 2014 to raise as much as a half million dollars in order to prevent the sculpture from being taken down. Additionally, the City will provide $20,000 to temporarily patch and secure the sculpture structure. There’s even some daylight on matching funds from the Cultural Trust Fund. But for now, it’s up to “the people.”

Which I think is just fine. But yes, the amount needed might exceed a half mil. So of course we talk at least a little about that kind of dough being put into this particular sculpture.

Are we being “responsible” to put the money into “Chain Reaction” and not instead into any of another dozen or so things that could easily be in the public interest of our city and its citizens? If the private sector speaks by way of donations, then the people have spoken on “Chain Reaction.”

But maybe the kids at your school don’t have the sort of music program that a half million bucks would buy? Maybe the way to view any half million dollars is in terms of five amounts of $100K that could be splashed upon some very worthy arts-related programs. Yes to that as well. I’m sorry that I can’t resolve this aspect with any finality.

The superb and oddly moving documentary film “Detropia” begins by dramatically contrasting the Detroit opera house supported by auto companies with the dystopian landscape of huge parts of the city that have literally been abandoned by a population moving away from decline. Is it a fair opening salvo? Because there is need and struggle, the arts are necessarily marked for death… or at least ridicule? Blessedly in Santa Monica, our conversations down this particular line are more often rhetorical than depressingly real. But we’re not so economically flush that we can ignore these arguments. I would posit, however, that it does mean we can afford to think in shades other than severe black and white.

It’s not overly romantic to say that “Chain Reaction” simultaneously represents the global yearning for peace and Santa Monica’s history of supporting that notion. What the sculpture says about what many of our city’s citizens believed at a certain time years ago only becomes a more intense statement when you realize that the threat of nuclear destruction is, tragically, a hot topic again. You want value in your art? How about an iconic 22 year-old sculpture that has more to say about Iran’s nuke intentions than the blather on most news channels?

Still… half a million bucks in 2013? We now have our chance to say what “Chain Reaction” means to us, and we can make that statement without directly taking money away from something else at least as worthy of our support. We are not just all pretty hotels and tourism. We have a soul, and we have a means of calling upon it now by way of something that will sing to future generations.

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