The Bum Rush

A modest proposal for civic art.

Hey, have you heard about the exciting and profitable new trend sweeping urban centers these days? I was vaguely aware that big, identical statues of cows and so forth, each uniquely decorated and/or sponsored, were popping up in many downtowns—last year we had big fish all over New Orleans. But I didn’t know the history and scope of this thrilling trend until I read the details in the New York Times yesterday. Apparently, it started in the United States just two (slow news) summers ago, when 340 cow sculptures appeared around Chicago under the name “Cows on Parade.” The idea came from Zurich, I gather, but “City officials said it brought Chicago $200 million in additional tourist revenue.”

Maybe your first reaction to that is the same as mine was: Where the hell did that obviously phony number come from? Looking at the cows was free, so were these officials claiming that enough tourists flocked to town for the purpose of walking around looking at public art to run up $200 million (the company that put the thing together actually claims it was $500 million) in hotel and restaurant bills? Well, whatever. Maybe it’s true. Anyway, it doesn’t matter now, because the bandwagon is zooming along: Cincinnati put pig sculptures everywhere; Orlando, Fla., went with lizards (“Art Gecko,” they call it, humorously); Lexington, Ky., tried horses; New York did cows; Rochester, Mich., has sheep (“Ewe Revue”); Dallas is going with the mythical Pegasus. A few municipalities have even opted for humans.

But, let’s face it, once the trend gets so far-flung that it’s on the front page of the Times, it’s in danger of overexposure. Any city looking to draw those hundreds of millions of dollars from free-spending public-art-viewers had better have a pretty spiffy new gimmick. The Times included ominous commentary from an expert on this subject: “The whole thing has perhaps gotten out of control. I don’t think it’s dangerous”—this is a relief—”but a lot of them are very ugly. … It makes me wonder what’s coming next year, and if it will be even more unappealing.”

I have a suggestion that would surely stand out from the public-sculpture pack, get lots of attention, and thus pump up the tourism figures. It is this: sculptures of homeless people. Scatter a few hundred statues of the homeless in various iconic poses—begging, staggering, huddled, prone, etc.—whimsically decorated by local artists or corporate sponsors. Since part of the formula is to give the project a snappy name, it could be called “The Bum Rush.” I don’t know, maybe there’s a better name, but that’s a start.

A Chicago official noted in the Times that “People gather around these objects and start talking to strangers. That’s very important to creating a sense of community.” Well what better conversation starter than a synthetic representation of a man slumped in the gutter, painted up like an iMac or a Ben & Jerry’s flavor? “Do you think he’s supposed to be dead, or just passed out?” That kind of thing. When summer has run its course, the figures would be auctioned off, just as the cows and fish and so on were (to both businesses and individuals), and the money donated to charity. Everybody wins.