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Join the informed, opinionated journalists of The Times' editorial staff in lively discussions at our blog Ed Cetera.

April 21, 2011 at 3:49 PM

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Choosing Seattle's Uglies

Posted by Bruce Ramsey

Civil disagreements, with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times editorial board, is an occasional feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Today the two discuss Seattle's public art and other landmarks they like--and don't.

Lynne Varner, left, and Bruce Ramsey

Bruce Ramsey: Lynne, here is a topic we might agree on. But then, maybe not.

Knute Berger, the Crosscut writer who often defends landmarks, has a piece that begins, “There are a number of Seattle landmarks I’d be happy to see disappear.” Since I so often disagree with Berger on the things he wants to protect—from the former Ballard Denny’s to the Seattle skyline (from electric signs)—I was curious to see the things he’d like to edit out, if he could Photoshop the city.

We disagree on those, too, mostly.

He starts off bashing Hammering Man, the thing outside the Seattle Art Museum. It’s supposed to remind us of workers and proletarians and all that hammer-and-tongs stuff, but it doesn’t. Berger says it reminds him of an old Anacin commercial—a reference that means something to a guy with a gray beard, which I have. I remember those commercials, and I think he’s kind of right about that.

It is a headache statue.

Then he takes a poke at the Fremont Troll, which he says is “ugly and charmless.” That’s going too far. Of course the Troll is ugly. Trolls are supposed to be ugly. But trolls are fun. I have taken out-of-town visitors there several times, day and night, and there is almost always somebody else there, climbing on it, taking photos of it or just gawking at it. That’s not true of most public art in Seattle, but it is true of the Troll. Kids especially like it.

I like it. It’s eating a Volkswagen! A real Volkswagen. How can you not like that?

And then Lenin. “We’re supposed to be amused by this relic of the old Soviet Union being adopted by the People’s Republic of Fremont,” he writes. “But I can’t help but think of the murderous repressions Lenin inspired.”

More than inspired. He ordered the Red Terror. If people knew what sort of man Vladimir Illich was, they wouldn’t put up with his bronze body. Can you imagine putting up a statue of Hitler? But people don’t know, and anyway the statue is not there to venerate the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. And Berger knows this. He says:

“To some degree, the Lenin statue is the opposite of what it appears. It could also be viewed as a trophy of Western triumphalism.”

Exactly right! It’s a trophy. We won the Cold War, and this is our trophy. It’s like coming home from D-Day with a Luger. Why would Seattle give that up?

I like having the great Commie in Fremont. Also Richard Beyer’s “People Waiting for the Interurban,” which always seems to be dressed up by somebody or other—another sign that it appeals to people.

What would I get rid of? Among works of public art, Michael Heizer’s “Adjacent, Against, Upon,” which strikes me as nothing more than three rocks.

Also the thingus at Bell Harbor Marina.

Among private art, I’d toss the two sculptures at the Mirabella Retirement Home kitty-corner from the Seattle Times, one of them along Fairview Avenue and one at the corner of Fairview and Denny. They mar an otherwise handsome building.

Lynne VarnerBruce, art is a matter of aesthetics and disagreements are a given. So first up: the Hammering Man stays in the picture. It is a sleek, postmodern piece of fabricated steel that is a city's reminder of the physical work few of us do anymore. We are a region built on the backs of great toil, whether it was logging, fishing or the regrading of Denny Hill. If intellectual and creative talents keep this region among the wealthiest in the nation, it was backbreaking work that built it. Except for Sept. 1991 when the Hammering Man fell (miraculously, no one was injured.) this oversized scuplture is a great meeting spot and landmark for the Seattle Art Museum.
Fun fact: replicas exist in New York, Los Angeles, Germany and Japan.

Other landmarks to keep include the pink elephant sign atop the ratty low slung building just off Denny heralding the Elephant Car Wash. Every neighborhood needs something that pulls people toward a pubilc square, for that corner of Denny and Dexter, the pink elephant is it.

I think the Fremont troll is kitschy but I can't walk pass Rachel the Pig at Pike Place Market without rubbing her copper back. I like public art. I'm also a fan of the old mansions preserved around the city. I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., where it is impossible to go two blocks without passing a federally-protected landmark or piece of public art. And let's not get started on all of the established monuments and those yet to be come.

It was almost serendipity then that I came to the Northwest for a job at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, home to the PI Globe.. The globe was my first hint of Seattle's quirkiness that more than 15 years later, experience has borne out.

One aspect neither you nor Knute raised is the role of taxpayers in public art, landmarks and monuments. For everything that you two would see torn down, a space opens to be filled. Does public funding have a role? I think it does.

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