Liberty -- as art

STRETCHING 120 feet across the Federal Plaza in New York City is a rusted steel fence, 12 feet high. It was commissioned as a work of art, by Richard Serra. Like a stone in the shoe, it irks New Yorkers. Its symbolism, if any, is a puzzlement; it makes no discernible statement. To get across the plaza you must walk around it. Farther west, in front of the county library in Columbus, Ind., is another prime example of public outdoor art. Standing alone, looking like the head of a mashie-niblick club from the bag of ``B. C.'' golfer Grog, is a lofty free-standing sculpture by Henry Moore. Neither the public nor critics have arrived at a consensus except to agree the thing is ugly and that a bed of petunias would do far more for both eye and spirit.

A similar reaction is felt by most people as they reflect on the giant rubber stamp in front of the new Sohio Building in Cleveland. They are aware of what it is but do not understand why it was put there.

There are hundreds of examples of outdoor art strewn across the nation's landscape which defy description. From a Picasso butterfly creation of a woman at the Chicago Civic Center to another Henry Moore doings -- this time the figure of a woman lolling on the Sculpture Plaza on Fifth Avenue in New York. This woman is badly contorted, possibly pregnant, and either her head or her torso is backward -- viewers' option. Examples such as this have neither a common message nor any connection with natural or human beauty, suggesting that artists, when confronted with the great outdoors as a backdrop, become lost in their own nightmares.

How fortunate we are, then, that our most cherished piece of outdoor art, the national monument standing just offshore from New York City -- Lady Liberty herself -- was sculptured by two Frenchmen over 100 years ago, long before outdoor art came in the shape of steel fences and lumpy contorted women.

Would that pedestal on Ellis Island be vacant today if the Republic of France and its two countrymen had not been on good terms with the New World? Is it possible that after a study by a presidential commission that the pedestal would be occupied by a mashie-niblick or worse?

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Miss Liberty, in today's mood, could be a 300-foot tower of steel and glass with flashing neon lights and a revolving restaurant near the top where immigrants could order 'a la carte. Farther up, at the very tip, I can envision a soft drink commercial saluting a new generation of Americans.

More important, would there be some other inscription cut in a tablet below the statue, in place of the one now asking in part to ``give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.'' Might it suggest to immigrants: ``You keep your poor. We've got all we need. Give us your petrodollars, your skilled professionals, your cheap consumer goods, and we'll make you an offer you can't refuse''? I trust not. We are still the world's most generous, if somewhat impetuous, nation.

All we can hope is that even if our tolerance and acceptance of public art changes, the message on that national monument on Liberty Island will always reflect true national character.

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