It's aquatic. It's epic. But is it real art?

A proposal to build a landmark piece of sculpture sparks a debate over artistic taste and the city's identity.

Considering that they're a creative bunch to begin with, it's perhaps no surprise that the art crowd in America's seventh-largest city has come up with plenty of ways to describe a proposed $50 million civic fountain.

The real humdinger is the force of the language used to slap around the waterfront project, which envisions five bronze killer whales tethered to a five-story-tall sculpture of Neptune.

Words like "hackneyed," "clichéd," and "irrelevant" are just the beginning. The fountain is an "artistic embarrassment" and a "kitschy retread of Soviet-style socialist realism," complains a coalition of big shots from the arts community in a letter to the San Diego Union-Tribune. "It is so solidly and squarely in the past and conservative and unambitious in every way that it would just label us as mediocre," says the director of a local art museum.

Moving in for the kill is Union-Tribune art critic Robert Pincus, who writes: "If this is the future for art in public places here, then let's have public places without art."

Yikes. With all these negative vibes, one might think Neptune & Co. would never move beyond the drawing board. But a funny thing happened on the way to the scrapheap of rejected public art projects. Many members of the public - along with a coalition of enthusiastic city boosters - actually like the thing.

"It's something that people would put on their lists of things to visit and see," predicts a hopeful Reint Reinders, president of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau.

This is hardly the first clash over the aesthetic value of a piece of public art. In a country where an estimated 360 government agencies sponsor public art programs, arguments such as this happen all the time.

But the battle of words - and wills - over the proposed artwork in San Diego comes with higher stakes than most. And not just because of the multimillion dollar price tag. Rather, this is an issue of civic pride. If built, the massive sculpture has the potential to become a signature landmark in a burgeoning city that is seeking greater recognition and a clearer individual identity.

This sun-blessed border city already has plenty of sights - the San Diego Zoo (always preceded by the words "world famous"), the beaches (including a renowned one where clothes are optional), and hot spots for the rich and famous like La Jolla and Coronado.

But some of the nearly 1.3 million residents here sense that the world thinks of their town as little more than a satellite of the behemoth burg to the north.

To critics such as Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the city's never-ending brouhahas over public art may doom it to second-class status, forever in the shadow of Los Angeles. "We have an unusually checkered and undistinguished history in our inability to build or welcome works of public art," Mr. Davies says.

In the most recent fray, officials here sank a project by artist Nancy Rubins. She wanted to cover a street next to the convention center with an arch of fiberglass boat parts that made one critic think of "hurricanes, perhaps mutiny, certainly claims against insurance policies." Ellsworth Kelly and Vito Acconci, two other well-known artists, also lost their bids to create public art in San Diego. A ballot measure in 1998 forced a nearby coastal city to tear down "Split Pavilion," a jail-like fence of metal bars along the beachfront.

But the flap over the Neptune fountain, dubbed "Spirit of the Seas," is different.

The project is huge, permanent and, some say, accessible to those lacking advanced degrees in art history. "It's not a challenge to understand," says Dan Wasil, whose brother A. Wasil, a San Diego sculptor, created the design. "It's very compelling. People enjoy the scale, the work itself, and they enjoy the vision."

The flap in San Diego is reminiscent of other controversies over large pieces of art in public places.

In the late 1980s, Cleveland officials bickered before agreeing to brighten a grassy spot next to City Hall with a giant rubber stamp made of aluminum and steel. And earlier this year, Milwaukee killed an artist's $165,000 plan to hang a giant blue shirt on a parking structure at Mitchell International Airport. "No one has ever flown into Mitchell and thought, 'What this airport needs is a 40-foot garment welcoming people to the city,' " wrote newspaper columnist Jim Stingl.

But the San Diego case may yet prove different from those others in a crucial way: the Roman god of the sea, his killer whales, and an accompanying herd of seahorses may not cost a dime of taxpayer money. A. Wasil hopes to get corporate sponsorship, raising the specter of, say, a Pfizer Pfountain or Nissan Neptune in a town that already will soon be home to a new baseball stadium called Petco Park.

The proposal came directly from A. Wasil, and officials didn't run it past a panel of artists. Now, as a government decision nears on the fate of the fountain, artists have no greater voice than anyone else.

"We've spent a lifetime honing our eyes and developing our knowledge," Davies says. "It's enormously insulting that anyone's opinion is as valued as mine when they haven't spent their lifetime honing their eye and educating themselves."

And what of the unsophisticated masses? About 750 sent messages this summer to the government agency in charge of the waterfront, and they were evenly divided pro and con.

If the public likes it and it's free, why not build the fountain? After all, as Mr. Reinders of the visitor's organization puts it, art is "in the eye of the beholder."

"Nonsense," Davies says. "There is expertise in art, like in any other discipline, but for some reason, people expect to suspend professional judgment when it comes to art. It's loosey-goosey and 'makes-me-feel-good,' when art is so much more sophisticated and advanced than that."

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