Mr. Chatterbox

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Can you believe it? Two public art crises at exactly the same time! One with the big sailor, one with the painted clowns. Everybody’s running around saying, "What is art? Is this art? Can art be that big?" Honestly, it’s like nobody in town knows what art is, with the possible exception of Virginia Hoffman. […]


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Can you believe it? Two public art crises at exactly the same time! One with the big sailor, one with the painted clowns. Everybody’s running around saying, "What is art? Is this art? Can art be that big?" Honestly, it’s like nobody in town knows what art is, with the possible exception of Virginia Hoffman.

Well, relax. I know what art is. I’m gifted that way. It’s like I can look at something and I can immediately tell if it’s art or not. Plus, I studied art in college-the survey course, granted, but it was an excellent survey and it only made my already good eye gimlet-sharp. How lucky the town is to have somebody like me-expert guidance from a clear-headed thinker with no agenda or ax to grind.

Let’s start with the big sailor. In case you are reading this somewhere else and have no idea what I’m talking about, let me explain that one of the statues in this year’s outdoor Season of Sculpture on the bayfront is a 25-foot-high version of that famous sailor who’s kissing the nurse in Times Square on V-E day. I must say, the first time you see it you stop in your tracks. It has been compared, quite accurately I feel, to something from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

People love it. You can sense when something has grabbed the town. Why, this is bigger than Menopause the Musical. There’s always a little knot of people in front of it and taking pictures. They’ve worn out the grass. All the other poor little sculptures go ignored. There is now a movement afoot to have the city buy it and leave it there.

Several points: There is a "greatest generation" aspect to the piece. The accompanying label mentions how the old soldiers and sailors are now dying at the rate of 1,200 a day. They have been such a presence in Sarasota over the years that now that they are dying, we are becoming a much different town. This would be a way to honor them. Maybe not the most fitting way, but certainly a way.

Overriding this is the fact that you can look up the nurse’s skirt. Yes, she’s just the right height so you can walk up and take a peek, and believe me, everybody does. Curiosity gets the better of you. Fortunately, the legs and the skirt merge rather early; otherwise we’d really have a controversy on our hands.

And now to the all-important question: Is it art? The answer is exactly what our city art czar Virginia Hoffman says it is-a resounding no. But it’s better than art. It belongs to a different genre, and that genre is called entertainment. They’re not the same. Believe me, I know, because that’s what I am, too: I’m entertainment, just like the statue. And you don’t want me down on the bayfront 24 hours a day, bigger than life, inescapable. You want some tasteful metal statue, abstract and relaxing, to class up the place. That’s what art is for.

But what do we do with this wonderful piece of entertainment? I suggest we put it in the parking lot at Sailor Circus. First of all, it’s a sailor, and second of all, now that they’re fixing the place up to hold rock concerts it will add the perfect touch as you prepare to enter the arena. Plus you’ll be able to see it every time you drive by on your way to Michael’s On East.

OK. We got that settled. Now, send in the clowns. Again, if you’re out of town here’s an update on this crisis. It seems that Hospice (now called Tidewell Hospice and Palliative Care) came up with the idea of placing clown statues all around town, each painted differently by a prominent artist. This has been done to great acclaim with cows and alligators in Chicago and Naples. But here it raised an outcry that touches so many of our buttons.

Just look at the enormous cast: Virginia Hoffman, in her second starring role of the year; the people who take care of the dying (many of them from the greatest generation-it’s wheels within wheels) and the clowns who entertain the dying (there are 60 of them, volunteers with Hospice); the City Commission (not to be confused with the clowns who entertain the dying); those who are part of or love Sarasota’s circus heritage; and, most surprising of all, people who are scared of clowns.

Who knew that there were so many or that they would become a serious political force over this issue, yet another group we must placate? I myself understand their problems only too well, as I was briefly frightened by clowns as a child. It turned out to be a phase I was going through, but some people never get over it, and I certainly feel for them, for nothing can match that vividly remembered terror at the sight of the white face, the red nose, the orange hair. It’s not called a "fright wig" for nothing. Imagine these poor people coming to Sarasota for a vacation, driving around, and every time they turn a corner there’s a clown. Now that’s a horror movie.

So I was a little nervous when I went to the press conference at which they unveiled the models of the clown statues. One of the things about clowns is the way they can come right up and embarrass you, invading your space and asking you unanswerable questions, like homeless people or streetwalkers. Sure enough, soon a clown named Rosie Bud came up to me and put a sticker on me.

Here’s the secret in dealing with clowns: Take control of the conversation. I asked Rosie where she got her shoes, and wouldn’t you know, it was a subject she rarely got to talk about, but she loved to show them off. And why not? They cost $300! They have to be made specially, and she let me feel them. That big space in front at the toe is not hollow, by the way.

After some socializing between the clowns and the City Commission, the statues were unveiled. There were two, a male clown and a female clown. I looked at the female clown with a gasp. She was a dead ringer for Pam Daniel, the editorial director here at the magazine.

Then they turned the statues around. Now it was the audience’s turn to gasp. The female clown’s skirt was blowing up, as if from an unseen gust of wind, and her posterior was enormous. Now she looked even more like Pam. Everybody’s thoughts went to the same place at once: That’s just too tempting a target for graffiti. Should we say something? Or let them find out the hard way? One thing is clear-we need a moratorium on public art where the big gimmick is looking up a woman’s skirt. That is not the sort of reputation the city needs.

But I rather liked the clowns, and the skirt issue can be tweaked before the statues are cast in bronze, so to speak. The only problem is their location. They should not be spread around town, all 70 of them, but rather grouped together and enlarged in scale, until they match the sailor. Then they should be placed lining Fruitville Road, from U.S. 301 down to the Trail, one every 50 feet or so. Then that part of Fruitville should be renamed Clown Alley. Believe me, that’ll draw the tourists.