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May 2, 2008


Let there be light... and dark


Joy to the World. Visit a major city almost anywhere in the world, and you’re likely to find public art lurking around every corner. Some of it is good; some not. But its mere presence enlivens city streets and amuses passersby.

Visit San Francisco, and you’re likely to feel that something is missing. Except for a few carefully placed pieces, San Francisco has little public art to boast of. Do we think that human-made art detracts from the beauty of natural settings? Tell that to Andy Goldsworthy. Or are we scared that unworthy selections will make us look foolish? Our barren streets already do that.

Suddenly, during the past week, the city has started to come to life.

valdes-1.jpgvelazquez_infanta1.jpgWednesday several large bronzes by the Spanish artist Manolo Valdes took up residence in Civic Center Plaza. Solid but whimsical, they provide happy echoes of works in other mediums. They also echo the sculptures in the garden at the de Young Museum.

At the de Young, a different sort of sculpture has taken up residence. Dale Chihuly’s Saffron Neon Tower, composed of blown glass, rises from the center of the Pool of Enchantment, its yellow glow contrasting the dark museum tower behind it.

chihuly-saffron-5-cropped.jpgSan Francisco artist Ron Henggeler notes that

the Pool of Enchantment, which has been greeting visitors at the entrance to the de Young since 1917, is by the famous San Francisco sculptor Earl Cummings. It consists of two pumas and an Indian boy playing a flute. Cummings was a protégé of Phoebe Apperson Hearst (mother of William Randolph Hearst). She financed his studies in Paris. Cummings studied as a pupil of Douglas Tilden at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute. (In the former Hopkins mansion. Douglas Tilden is one of California’s and San Francisco’s most famous sculptors. In his day Tilden was known as the Michelangelo of the West.) Cummings eventually became a leading light in San Francisco’s artistic and social circles. He exhibited frequently at the Bohemian Club and after the catastrophic destruction of the city in 1906 was appointed San Francisco’s first Parks Commissioner. He served on that post for 32 years and his influence is still seen all over San Francisco in the display of many well-known public sculptures and monuments.

chihuly-sun-thinker-2.jpgAnother work by Chihuly, Yellow Sun, is in the front courtyard at the Legion of Honor.

The two bits of light are merely the beginning. A full-scale exhibition of Chihuly’s work will open at the de Young on June 14 and run through September 28. And Valdes’s sculptures will be here through August.

After that… after that, others might come. Or our plazas and courtyards might return to their customary bleak state.

MediaWatch. According to front-page stories in yesterday’s Chronicle and Examiner, Mayor Gavin Newsom is jubilant over a recent city controller’s report on the success of his “Care Not Cash” program. Jubilation is nice, for anyone. But it’s not front-page news. The articles present the usual “he said, she said” duet that often passes for news these days: an official statement followed by a quote from a “critic”:

Jennifer Friedenbach, head of the Coalition on Homelessness, said the program puts people in hotel rooms that the poor have always lived in and “their income was taken away to pay for it.”

“It’s not a permanent solution,” she said. “It’s more of a shell game.”

The Coalition usually gets its facts right. If the charge is true, the highly touted success is pretty empty. Any self-respecting newspaper would find out.

The Dark Side. A Newsweek article titled “Getting Away with Torture” closes bleakly:

Despite the fact that senior members of the Bush administration may have violated the War Crimes Act of 1996, the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, there is scant serious talk of legal accountability….

High-ranking administration officials and enemy combatants may have broken the law, and their legal situations are weirdly parallel. Both show how the rule of law can fracture under the strain of politics. Those alleged lawbreakers at Guantánamo can never be acquitted for purely political — as opposed to legal — reasons. The alleged lawbreakers in the Bush administration will never be held to account on precisely the same grounds.

A recent ACLU report announces the release of documents containing

new details exposing the role of psychologists in military interrogations. The documents also uncover new information about the failure of military medical personnel to report abuses at Abu Ghraib, the military’s use of unlawful interrogation methods subsequent to a directive that was ostensibly meant to end such practices, and detainee deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Director of the ACLU National Security Project, Jameel Jaffer, adds,

Four years have passed since the Abu Ghraib photographs were first published, and yet no senior official has been held responsible for the abuse and torture of prisoners. Senior officials made torture into official policy. Accountability is long overdue.

“Accountability for the authorization of torture and abuse by high-level officials” will be the focus of a House Judiciary Committee Hearing on May 6. Any bets on the outcome of the hearing?

20-20 Hindsight. Political consultant Joe Trippi is having second thoughts about the advice he gave John Edwards.

I should have told him emphatically that he should stay in. My regret that I did not do so — that I let John Edwards down — grows with every day that the fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continues.

Joe, there’s no time like the present. Don your Nikes and just do it.

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till Monday.

       — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008