Venus for the Rest of Us

The writer finds more than just the arms missing on Jim Dine's "Cleveland Venus."

I want to weigh in on the big lady. The 37-foot-tall, 23,000-pound bronze one that looks out Çrom above the entrance to the new Carl B. Stokes Federal Courthouse. I'm referring, of course, to the "Cleveland Venus," the sculpture by Jim Dine that dominates the facade of the 22-story building.

I'm all in favor of elevating women. I believe in the value of art in public places, especially when it is publicly funded. And I've never been accused of being literal-minded. But the decision to place this particular piece on this particular building is deeply disturbing.

In an essay about the sculpture, Cleveland Museum of Art curator Tom Hinson, who served on the selection committee, writes: "Resonant with multilayered references, the Cleveland Venus welcomes infinite responses."

OK, here's mine: outrage.

Hinson describes her as a "beacon." I'd say she's an embarrassment — a very, very big one.

This so-called deconstructed icon — a concept lost, I'd guess, on most who drive by — which has been chosen as the figurehead for the courthouse, has no head with which to think, no eyes to see, no mouth with which to speak, and neither hands nor arms. Her drapes appear to be falling, already down well below the waist, but this poor girl doesn't even have what it takes to hoist up her own skirts.

She is an image of helplessness and impotence, damaged and deficient, without voice, vision or intellect. Blind justice is supposed to mean impartiality, not sightlessness and the absence of the equipment necessary for perception, judgment and action.

Hinson writes that the sculpture evokes such "universal symbolic associations as beauty, femininity and justice." That's not what I thought the first time I saw it or on any occasion since. Call me an obtuse philistine, but a larger-than-life female double amputee, decapitated and half-clothed, just doesn't say beauty, femininity and justice. Instead, she makes me think about the mutilated corpses, usually female, that dominate TV crime dramas.

Ah, maybe now I'm starting to get the connection. But in that case, wouldn't the "Cleveland Venus" be better affixed to the Cuyahoga County coroner's office in University Circle?

I find it absolutely inconceivable that Dine's piece would be considered appropriate for the courthouse and, by extension, our legal system. Perhaps the message is that the system is broken just like the lady in question. But if she does represent some deep and profound truth about the rule of law in 21st-century America, do we really want to proclaim these failings so loudly and writ so large?

One might also legitimately ask what her exposed and maimed figure says about attitudes toward women and their rights in this society. Not anything positive, I'm afraid.

Dine has modeled his piece on the famous Venus de Milo, a Greek statue carved, complete with head, by Alexandros of Antioch sometime around 100 B.C. The original statue possessed arms, too, but they had broken off and were missing when she was discovered on the island of Melos in 1820. The rationale for not replacing them was that no sculptor should deface such an exquisite work by adding something of his own.

Dine adopted a reductionist approach. Rather than add to the graceful figure, he subtracted. There's plenty of overwrought
language and hyper-academic theorizing to explain the meaning of Dine's "modified" Venus and its ironic implications.

But any way you cut it, the Greek lady got whacked. Viewed from all angles, it becomes obvious that a more appropriate name for our sculpture would be "Venus de Victim."

It didn't take much thought or extended analysis to reach this assessment. I couldn't believe what I was seeing when I drove through the intersection at Huron Road and Superior Avenue shortly after she'd been hauled up to her perch. I gasped. I gawked. I fumed.

Perhaps, I thought, in an effort to calm myself, it's unfinished. There's likely more to come. It must surely be a work in progress. If not, I knew immediately that it was a very bad joke played on our town, and the people who selected it were willing butts. Time and further contemplation has not changed that initial impression, only confirmed it.

In addition to Hinson, the selection committee included John Hunter, former chair of Cleveland State University's art department; Kathleen Coakley, founder and former director of the Committee for Public Art; and David Deming, president of the Cleveland Institute of Art — a pretty well-credentialed group.

But perhaps that's part of the problem. Maybe an education in aesthetics makes one immune to the messages such a work carries for less-informed viewers. But public art is just that: public. It's meant for everyone. And not everyone has the training to recognize the connection of Dine's piece to classical antiquity or to perceive the ironic and intellectual implications of his abstracting her torso. (That's a fancy term, preferred by art critics, to describe the fact that what Dine did is lop off the figure's head and call the result his own.)

What we get is a larger-than-life female that's been rendered deaf, dumb and dumber. Is it possible that the group entrusted with selecting a work of art did not even consider the implications of putting this emblem on the courthouse? It makes a mockery of the building and the system it represents, and that makes the piece a colossal failure.

Reporting on the official dedication and celebration event in October, a piece in Angle, a local journal of arts and culture, referred to her as a "semi-draped, sadly abused Barbie doll."

But Dine gets the last laugh. Apparently,ûin remarks to the crowd at Shaheen Modern and Contemporary Art gathered for Venus' coming out party, he thanked Clevelanders, including those who don't like her, and reminded them that no matter what they think, the sculpture's "not going anywhere."

I've got other issues, too. Beyond the message this Venus telegraphs, there is the piece itself. As it turns out, this mutilated form is part of a body — pun intended — of work. In this case, that means there are numerous replicas of the same thing, in various sizes, and we got the Biggest Gulp of all to the tune of (gulp again) $808,000.

Our "Venus" may be Dine's largest, but it is by no means his only one. There are two on New York's Sixth Avenue. His "White Venus" is in Frankfurt, Germany. Cincinnati has one downtown in Centennial Plaza. So what Cleveland got is a piece right off his Ωurrent, and highly lucrative, assembly line. One could say he's found a way to do so much more with so much less. Dine is touted as a genius, an artist célèbre. But how talented must one be to copy a masterpiece, deface it as a means of personalizing it, and then repeat the formula over and over again under the guise of exploring a theme? What happened to the concept of originality in art?

Clearly, Jim Dine found something that sells. The question is: Why do people keep buying? One might just as well ask why everyone admired the emperor's new clothes.

The U.S. General Services Administration's Art in Architecture program mandates dedicating 1.5 percent of construction costs for federal buildings to pay for art in public spaces. The set-aside offered an incredible opportunity. But the selection committee failed us. What they delivered was a cookie-cutter concept rendered even more offensive by its context.

To add insult to injury, the work from which Dine draws inspiration, the Venus de Milo, is associated with a fraud perpetrated on the public by curators at the Louvre back in 1821. Ignoring evidence to the contrary, they convinced themselves and the public that the statue was a masterpiece from Greek's classical age. In fact, it was carved later, during the Hellenistic era — a period less admired by 19th-century scholars.

Perhaps we've been similarly hoodwinked. We're supposed to see a masterpiece. But, along with many other people with whom I've talked, I don't see it. And, ultimately, the verdict is in the eyes of the beholder.

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