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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Train Wreck You Can’t Look Away From

A government agency gets creative with arts funding

There’s a new patron in the arts world, one without a name as lofty as The American Arts Council or National Council on the Arts. In fact, it’s a one-word synonym for missed connections, interminable delays, stale candy bars, filthy restrooms, and stained seats. That’s right: Amtrak has decided it’s going to become a veritable Louvre.

Amtrak’s gameplan involves deftly blending individual donations and foundation grants with money from the National Endowment for the Arts and in-kind contributions of its own (tax-funded, for-profit) services.

True, trains are a significant part of the American culture, featuring prominently in ethnic folk songs, country music, and early rock; Buster Keaton, Western oaters, and Thin Man-franchise film classics; and even Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. However, the trains were one subject of the art created rather than the progenitor. In other words, Woody Guthrie, Junior Parker, and Hank Williams wrote songs and Jack Kerouac authored a novel (partially) about riding the rails or hearing the “high, lonesome sound” of the train whistle as both metaphorical and real. In each instance, the train provided some unbidden inspiration for enduring art rather than seducing artists with handouts.

Aggression (modified by opulent sensuality)

Today, though, Amtrak provides something a lot closer to commissions than inspiration. It even shelled out for a painter to blast neon paint on buildngs alongside the tracks. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Amtrak, in tandem with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, commissioned German artist Katharina Grosse to subject her “psychylustro” form of art to 34,000 daily riders exposed to seven sites along the Philadelphia-New Jersey railway corridor.

Art in America described Grosse’s artistic abilities thusly:

Unlike the Action Painters or Expressionists, with their convulsive brushwork and gestures, Grosse never comes into direct contact with the surfaces. Her physical if not psychological detachment seems related to Conceptual art. However, her technique involves a machismo stance, with aggression modified by a kind of opulent sensuality.

The project is expected to cost just under $300,000. Funding comes from a variety of sources, several of them public. Regardless of what one thinks of Grosse’s art, an unprofitable transportation company reliant on public dollars is in no position to patronize something as subjective as artwork.

Training artists and bureaucrats

As I’ve argued in the past, no government or even quasi-government agencies governed by those employed in the arts can predict whether commissioned pieces may or may not present anything of merit. Nor should public monies be spent on exercises appealing to only a few, arbitrated by committees composed of a narrow cross-section of contemporary aesthetics. And what of the artists who toil incessantly without government largesse?

“I can’t remember the last time public art turned out to be a good idea,” Larry Kaufmann told me. Kaufmann is president of The Liberty21 Institute, a new think tank dedicated to promoting a culture of liberty.

“Artists seem inevitably to go for shock value and transgression, and these qualities were already in ample supply the last time I visited an Amtrak station,” Kaufmann said. “I suppose it would be nice if they commissioned something that captured the glory of train travel in the past—but even that would be romantic nostalgia, not anything that captures the reality of today’s Amtrak.”

Kaufmann continued: “Fundamentally, I don’t understand why we’re spending federal funds we don’t have to beautify a transportation service that no one uses outside the Acela corridor. The arts budget would clearly be put to better use elsewhere.”

Even if Grosse’s effort is of merit, it won’t last long. The WSJ reports the installation has a shelf life of only three weeks, as the work involves coloring the outdoors. “After that, the piece will be subject to elements, both human and natural—from erosion to possible gentrification. Its lifespan may vary from a matter of weeks to several months or, potentially, years.”

Not included in the $300,000 price tag are the salaries of the Amtrak engineers who “are overseeing the action at every site during the artwork’s installation.” Further: “For the next six months, the Mural Arts Program and the City of Philadelphia’s Graffiti Abatement Team have pledged to maintain ‘psychylustro’ and protect it from defacement.”

“Fuel your sense of adventure!”

Writers can also get into the act with the Amtrak Residency. The program, according to the website,

Will allow for up to 24 writers to take long-distance trains to work on their projects. Each writer’s round-trip journey will include accommodations on board a sleeper car equipped with a bed, a desk and outlets. We hope this experience will inspire creativity and most importantly fuel your sense of adventure!

Oh, goodie. The New Republic’s Adam Kirsch writes:

As it happens, right around now is the time poets across America are wrestling with the unbelievably complicated online application process for NEA grants. By contrast, the ease and speed with which Amtrak decided to dispense its largesse feels positively humane. There is a certain PR benefit for the railroad company, of course—this is probably the first time in ages that Amtrak has made the news without the words “accident,” “delay,” or “cost overruns” in the headline. But there is also a sense that the people running the railroad actually responded to the idea that, somewhere in America, there are passengers for whom the idea of riding Amtrak is a dream, not a chore.

But, of course: Solipsism is the artist’s stock-in-trade, is it not? Or, at least it is at Amtrak and The New Republic. And, it seems, at The Paris Review, which published an essay from the program’s first free rider, Jessica Gross, featuring the following bout of navel-gazing:

I’ve always been a claustrophile, and I think that explains some of the appeal—the train is bounded, compartmentalized, and cozily small, like a carrel in a college library. Everything has its place. The towel goes on the ledge beneath the mirror; the sink goes into its hole in the wall; during the day, the bed, which slides down from overhead, slides up into a high pocket of space. There is comfort in the certainty of these arrangements. The journey is bounded, too: I know when it will end. Train time is found time. My main job is to be transported; any reading or writing is extracurricular. The looming pressure of expectation dissolves. And the movement of a train conjures the ultimate sense of protection—being a baby, rocked in a bassinet.

All in all, not bad, and, in fact, close to the woolgathering works I commissioned from authors as editor of several high-minded, small-circulation magazines back in the day. Keep in mind the magazines I edited relied on subscriptions and advertising revenue to stay afloat, and my small stable of writers and their expenses were paid from those proceeds rather than from government handouts. Remarkably, these magazines recognized a profit for their shareholders, to whom I was accountable.

Amtrak, seemingly, is accountable to no one.

So what will taxpayers get for their $300,000? For three weeks, a few Amtrak riders will soak in all the color, verve, and perplexity that comes with Grosse’s pink pigments on old fences and rail yard walls. Then it’ll all be washed away in an ocean of red ink.

  • Bruce Edward Walker is a cultural critic and freelance contributor to The Freeman, The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and The Heartland Institute. He also writes a weekly column for The Morning Sun, a newspaper based in mid-Michigan.