The Beginnings of Cancel Culture

According to one Wikipedia article, “the Concord Spirit Poles were a controversial public art project installed in the Bay Area city of Concord, California in 1989, at the direction of artist Gary Rieveschl, at a cost of approximately $100,000. They stretched along the median near downtown on Concord Ave. Rieveschl has said that the poles signify “our increasing interdependence in an electronic age of digitized information.” The 91 pointed aluminum rods ranged from 8 to 50 feet in height and weighed as much as 100 pounds each, prompting residents of the suburban bedroom community to object to their harsh appearance. The city used the poles to hang banners and flags in an unsuccessful attempt to soften the sculpture’s look. The Spirit Poles ultimately became unstable and cracked, with one toppling during a windstorm. The Concord City Council voted in 1999 to remove the Spirit Poles.

At least that is part of the story.

Ordinances had been adopted that required 1 to 2 percent of new building projects to have a budget for public art. Building office complexes had art, traffic circles had art, even paving streets had artistic manhole covers. concords medians had Spirit Poles.

This wasn’t a direct gift to artists, there was a selection process, there was a proposal, there were conceptual drawings, there was a presentation, and there was a budget. The committee apparently had no difficulty with the selection, no one remembers the other presentations, and soon enough the installation took place. There was something called “the Heritage Park Project” that was budgeted for $400,000, and the Spirit Poles were just a part of that. Perhaps that’s why it had an easy pass through committee. Installation for the poles went forward in 1989. That’s when opinions came pouring in.

In either case, for the general public they missed the artist’s intention, and called for their removal. It was public art, paid for by the public, and they felt they had the right of an opinion.

Unfortunately the contract was negotiated by a representative for the public, and the contract had a clause against the removal except for safety reasons.

The public was outraged, as more and more people offered their opinions. As for the falling spirit pole, I have not found proof that any pole fell during a wind storm.

Finally, a enterprising city inspector looked at the base of a few of the “pointed aluminum” poles, and found some suggestion of aluminum “corrosion”. With the remote possibility of one or more poles falling onto the roadway, all the poles were removed and placed into storage, until a plan to fix the problem appeared. No plan appeared, it was never assigned, the contract didn’t allow the city to recycle them. They remained in storage for years. In 2001, the artist was paid $75,000 and he released any claim for the art. They were cut up and recycled. Perhaps you have had a beer, or soda, from the recycled aluminum poles.

The end result was so concerning that Concord repealed the two ordinances for public art, instead of fixing the process of selection.

So how did the “cancel culture” begin? The internet was too new to be involved, so it was the traditional media: letters to the editor, talk radio, media outlets. They took up the banner and found that the public wanted more of the story. The National Enquirer called them “the ugliest publicly funded sculpture in America.” What gave the National Enquirer the skill to critique public art? No one asked. Everybody can have an opinion, and anyone can shape further public opinion.

Gary Rieveschl was a respected visual artist specializing in “landform” installations. Working with earthmounds and flowers, he has art installed throughout the Midwest and Europe. He actually had a small book published on his installations from 1973-1987. It’s curious that I haven’t found anything that he has done since the Spirit Poles. He is now 79, and living in Indiana.

I did find an article from Cincinnati, that mentions another work of his, “Autooasis”, that was a 1973 Chevy with doors, trunk, and hood open, filled with growing vegetation. It was a vehicle as a potted plant. Eventually it was evicted from its space and crunched as scrap metal.

They most common photo of his art was one from Germany of a bank of earth, and a weaving “snake” of daffodils. Perhaps it’s gone as well.

Interesting fact, Gary’s father, George Rieveschl, invented Benadryl, and this helped Gary by having the financial support to send him to Harvard and MIT. Maybe he wasn’t cancelled, maybe he inherited.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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