The $600,000 Toad-Riding Faerie
posted at 11:00 am on April 23, 2011 by J.E. Dyer
OK, technically, I think it was a $200,000 toad-riding faerie. I guess the real question is which of the US Army’s recent slogans this public art project, intended to “enhance the aesthetics” at a bus depot in Alexandria, Virginia, was meant to evoke.
“Be all you can be!”
“An Army of One.”
I have to be honest here. I don’t think the silliest thing about this is that the project was going to cost $600,000, before Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) stepped in and asked for some, er, clarification.
I agree with Grassley, of course:
The Army was ready to spend $600,000 on three pieces of questionable art, just when the country is up to its eyeballs in red ink. With a national debt of more than $14 trillion, we’ve got to make sure spending is in line with the national interest.
Yep. What he said.
But I can imagine why the Army was trying to spend money this way, just as all government agencies come up with “good ideas” and try to spend money that’s been deposited in their accounts. The “good ideas” factory churns out its product 24/7, independent of funding or specific direction. It gets help – often – from bureaucratic inertia. A directive from years ago, to “interact in interesting, compelling ways with the public to enhance the Army’s image,” is executed in “bureaucratic years,” meaning that the original purpose looks idiotic by the time something actually happens.
And never forget that this year’s funds get spent, period. It would be lovely if they didn’t, but the first law of government funding is, if you don’t spend it this year you won’t see it next year.
So I get the process that led to this interesting interlude. What I don’t get is how a sculpture of a faerie riding a toad – a toad burbling brown stuff – became a finalist in the Army-funded public art sweepstakes. I mean, a group of children, maybe. Or a soldier surrounded by children. A soldier and civilian standing shoulder to shoulder, I don’t know. Something that doesn’t look like the Army’s channeling the Pre-Raphaelite poets or the wonderful world of wall-art stickers.
It might have been useful for Army decision-makers to consider the checkered history of the military’s involvement with public art projects. In the 1930s tale recounted by Time, the warriors of West Point ended up with some marvelous Navy-themed “art” to honor their brothers in arms with. Somehow I suspect there will be more than one rendition of the toad-riding faerie popping up – for art’s sake – around the august haunts of Annapolis.
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