Is public art a 'sting'?

We have seen some statues in the park we could take or leave alone - especially when they seat morose Civil War officers on snorting horses, leaving the pigeons to perch upon drawn swords.

We grab our picnic lunch and bivouac somewhere else, thanks all the same.

But certainly no artifact in any public place has ever driven us up the nearest spreading chestnut tree in the outraged manner of Douglas Stalker and Clark Glymour. ''The Malignant Object'' - this is one of the nicer names the two agitated professors call your typical public sculpture in the pages of the Public Interest quarterly.

Getting down to cases, they point to Alexander Calder's ''Flamingo'' and Claes Oldenburg's ''Bat-column'' in Chicago as well-known horrible examples. ''One rarely hears anything good said of them,'' they declare. And if you demand further proof, they cite the general ''dismay'' of writers of letters to editors.

Should you persist in supposing that anybody beside the artist's mother enjoys a ''malignant object,'' they invite you to consider the minor vandalism perpetrated on other Oldenburg sculptures, arguing that such ''defacement of some pieces of sculpture seems to enjoy a measure of community support'' - democracy-in-action, as it were.

Do not be deceived by those too apathetic to vote thus by graffiti. Poor passive folk! They adjust to public sculpture in the same way they ''adapt to burned-out tenements, to garbage in the street.''

We only wish the professors could wax this indignant on the subject of tenements and garbage - on poverty itself.

But wait. They are not through yet. ''Much public sculpture, and public art generally,'' they write, does not simply waste public space and money. It does ''substantial and identifiable harm'' comparable to that ''caused by the public display of pornography.''

The authors, it must be stressed, are not discussing the moral decorum of public sculpture. The charge, vague as it is, implies that much of modern art constitutes a personal insult, designed to make the public feel gauche and ashamed of its more traditional values.

We agree with the authors that Philistines have rights too.

We agree that there are, and always have been, bogus works of art.

We agree that artists can become petty tyrants in the interest of promoting themselves and their theories.

We appreciate the employment of polemics to clear the air of such cant.

But the attack on ''modern art'' can become its own kind of cant. We worry that too slashing an approach to the ''malignant object'' strikes at not only bad modern art but all modern art, and finally at art itself.

It is getting just a little too easy for debunkers to say the emperor has no clothes.

Such generalizations only polarize the famous ''alienation'' of artist and public.

Both parties, we must assume, share a common hunger to see public space filled with some kind of gesture, some kind of celebration, even though they may disagree about what that gesture should be.

In a dissent from the ''malignant object'' thesis, the critic Wolf von Eckhardt has quoted a Philistine from Grand Rapids who confessed that when his city ''purchased what is called 'a Calder' . . . I did not know what a Calder was. . . . It was somewhat shocking to a lot of people out home. I must say that I did not really understand, and I do not today, what Mr. Calder was trying to tell us. But . . . that Calder in the center of the city, in an urban redevelopment area, has really helped to regenerate a city.''

These unaffected words of then-Congressman Gerald Ford (R) of Michigan suggest that art is a mystery which revitalizes without either the artist or the audience quite knowing why. If both artist and public have to risk making fools of themselves in the process, the risk - as risks go these days - is worth it.

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