Crafty Manolo » Robert Arneson VS Public Art

Robert Arneson VS Public Art

By Twistie

all images via

The gentleman above surrounded by whimsical and slightly surreal ceramic self-portraits is Robert Arneson (1930 – 1992). He’s one of my favorite artists.

I saw my first Arneson at the tender age of nine. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a picture of it online, but it was entitled Man Losing His Marbles. It was a self-portrait bust with the skull split open and spilling  – you guessed it! – marbles. I fell in love.

The next time I saw a piece of Arneson’s, it was in the newspaper. After the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, Arneson was commissioned to make a bust of Moscone for Moscone Center. This is what he made:

Nobody disputed the portrait of Moscone itself. It’s a good likeness. Nobody objected to the materials, since everyone knew that Arneson was a ceramicist. What scared San Francisco’s Art Commission to the point of panic was the pedestal.

You see, public art is usually safe, slightly sanitized, and uncontroversial. But that wasn’t Arneson. Moscone was Arneson’s personal hero, and he decided to tell the story of his hero’s life – and his death – on that pedestal.

There are legends telling where Moscone was born and where he went to high school. Some of his favorite sayings are included, too.

More controversial were the images and comments related to Moscone’s death and its aftermath. There are three bullet impressions glazed in blood red, a Twinkie wrapper, the legend “Harvey died, too” and references to Diane Feinstein’s succession to the mayor’s office. The Art Commission demanded that Arneson change the pedestal. Arneson refused. In the end, the Art Commission refused the bust and Arneson sold it to a private collector.

What has always puzzled me about the whole incident was that the Art Commission had to have known something about Arneson’s work when they gave him the commission. This is the artist, after all, who produced this self-portrait:

… as well as the squished busts above. This was not a man who was going to produce something safe and non-controversial. I knew that, and until the picture of the Moscone bust, I had seen precisely one of Arneson’s pieces. In fact, I only discovered the artist’s name when all the bruhaha happened.

I finally got to see the Moscone bust in person a couple years after Arneson’s death when the De Young in San Francisco held a retrospective of his work. At long last, I saw the piece that had caused all the fuss. It brought back the memories of hearing about the assassination as I sat having lunch in my high school cafeteria, of Dan White’s trial and the riots that broke out at the result.

But in addition to the memories of all the tragedy and violence, I got a better sense of the man Moscone had been. I learned something just looking, and became curious to know more. George Moscone became more real, more human, and the horror of two lives snuffed out violently was brought back to me almost viscerally.

It made me think of other busts I’ve seen in public buildings. All I could see was an endless procession of bronze and marble that presented prosaic images of anonymous men about whom I have no information and even less curiosity.

Whatever you may think of George Moscone, his political stances, or the circumstances of his death, there’s one thing about Arneson’s bust: if you see it, you will have an opinion. You will feel something. And if you didn’t know anything about him before, chances are you’ll come away at least mildly curious to learn.

It may have scared the snot out of the San Francisco Art Commission in 1980, but I think we could use more public art that engages the emotions and stimulates curiosity.

So would Robert Arneson.

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