A ‘Plop’ for Diversity in Holland, Michigan

holland sculpture

On Wednesday MLive ran an article announcing that $100,000 has been raised for a permanent sculpture that will be placed along a busy road in Holland, Michigan. The 36 foot tall steel work by Dutch artist Cyril Lixenberg, titled New Dawn Rising is meant to symbolize diversity and unity, and is part of Holland’s “Celebrating Our Diversity” Public Art Project. The article quotes one of the main backers of the project, who says the objective is “to demonstrate our community’s understanding and support for diversity and inclusion.” A noble goal, to be sure, but as both an artwork and a demonstration of understanding, the project falls short.

Diversity is a rather charged subject when I think of Holland. Partly due to recent controversies concerning diversity and inclusion, but also its history. Holland was settled by Dutch immigrants, and their Dutch American ancestors fervently embrace Dutch culture and heritage. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s one of many great American immigrant stories, versions of which have been told time and again from Plymouth Rock to McAllen, Texas.

Full disclosure: I am a West Michigan native descended from Dutch immigrants, with extended family from Holland, Michigan. Tulip Time, the annual spring festival of Dutch Culture, and countless other reminders throughout the year, seem to carry the message of the half-joking line my Dutch grandfather used to say, “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much!” It’s certainly possible to celebrate Dutch heritage without undertones of xenophobia, but I’m not convinced that this grand public art gesture pulls it off.

As the MLive article points out, Cyril Lixenberg is a Dutch artist. He makes fine work and has many West Michigan connections, including several pieces in the collection of Grand Valley State University. In one way, the choice of artist makes perfect sense. In another way, it limits the project to a symbolic, half-hearted gesture. In other contexts, the ethnicity of the artist might not matter, but in something called the “Celebrating Our Diversity” Public Art Project, it certainly does. They hope to raise $375,000 for this commission, a very respectable sum. They could have selected an artist from anywhere with any background to create a project celebrating the diversity of Holland, Michigan, and they chose one from… Holland. The selection of a Dutch artist seems to say, “We want to tell a story of diversity in our community, as long as the author of that story is still Dutch.” If they want to celebrate diversity, they should amplify diverse voices, not simply select diversity as a topic.

While I respect Lixenberg’s work (his prints are particularly nice), I just can’t get excited about another giant wavy piece of steel. New Dawn Rising looks like it will be monumental, symbolic, and frankly, boring. It fits nicely into the category of public art so common in the second half of the last century known as “plop art,” giant abstract forms that are plopped into their site with little regard for the architectural, social, or political context of the place. I’m a fan of abstract art, but the problem with abstract public art that’s supposed to convey a particular feel-good message, is that it can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. Which is another way of saying it means nothing.

Holland is a place with a strong founding narrative that still reverberates in the city today. It’s an American tale of hardy pioneers seeking opportunity and carving out a home, and that’s wonderful. This story is still happening today, but settlers are not coming from the Netherlands, they’re coming Mexico and Central America. In the 2010 census, over 22% of Holland’s 33,000 people identified as Hispanic or Latino. The influx of new immigrants is an echo of the very same thing that brought Dutch immigrants generations ago.

The entire process of creating public art conveys meaning, not just the finished product. What a work of art says comes not only from its symbolism and representation, but the story of its creation, its materials, and the people making it possible. The process in Holland seems to be one of creating an art object about diversity, when the process itself should be an exploration of diversity. The result of that process would ultimately be more effective. The MLive article states that a diverse committee decided on the proposal, which is understandable. But too often committees selecting art have a way of weeding out risky and compelling proposals, and watering down the spirit of a project to a bland, palpable form. Curation by committee is a close cousin to design by committee.

The story of immigration is central to Holland’s identity. Shouldn’t a public art project celebrating diversity reflect the 21st century chapter of the immigrant story? There are quite enough vague steel sculptures by old white men. Holland can do better.

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