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Taxpayers Burned As NEA-Funded Art Goes Up in Flames


If art is truly in the eye of the beholder such as the taxpayer, what if there’s nothing left to behold except for ashes?

by Tom Steward/Watchdog Minnesota

ST. PAUL--It wasn’t long ago that burning works of art, whether books or otherwise, was frowned upon. But it was in vogue for at least a few minutes at 2 a.m. Sunday in St. Paul when a Twin Cities sculptor’s life-sized model of a local Marcel Breuer-designed house went up in flames before thousands at an outdoor art festival.

MN ARTIST CHRIS LARSON wanted to burn the model house supported by $15,000 NEA grant on the Mississippi River but settled for the St. Paul bluffs instead. (University of MN photo)

The performance, entitled “Celebration, Love, Loss,” was fueled in part by a $15,000 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant.

University of Minnesota art professor Chris Larson originally hoped to float and burn the 1800-square-foot cardboard and wood re-creation on the Mississippi River.

“Set on a solid floating platform, the house will float on the river and then be set on fire as a symbolic act of celebration and destruction,” states the NEA grant description. After facing objections, Larson accepted an offer to torch his creation at the Northern Spark art festival.

“The purpose of the piece is kind of his title, which is celebration, love, loss,” said Mira LaCous, the lead pyro-technician for the exhibition. “Kind of bringing it through that cycle of loss and burning it up so fast there’s hardly time to grieve.”

“Burning the Breuer replica is not an act of mourning,” according to the event website which lists the NEA and the Minnesota State Arts Board as sponsors. “Rather than a funeral pyre, it represents hope. The spectacular flame prevents melancholy arising from the loss of Modernist purity and rationality. Ruinous beauty burns to reveal new possibility—seeing through the high point of man-made perfection to the potentialities wrought through its destruction.”

The conflagration was the finale of the weekend event, which serves an outlet for art work typically not seen or staged in museums. Followers raved about the 15-minute flame-out on Northern Spark’s FaceBook page.  “That was sweet!” wrote Nancy V. Lang. “Legitimately one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen,” said Joey Lusvardi.

The New York Times embraced the pyrotechnics with a 2,700-word spread, 23 photos and video in the Home and Garden section that dug for insight into Larson’s short-lived work. “Pressing him (Larson) to explain why he creates and obliterates houses ultimately seemed like asking the photographer Cindy Sherman why she takes so many pictures of herself. It’s what he does,” wrote reporter Michael Tortorello.

But the inferno ignited critics of wasteful government spending, who questioned the NEA’s priorities and noted the Minnesota State Arts Board’s taxpayer support of the festival through Legacy Grant funding.  Minnesota received 28 NEA grants in 2013 totaling $877,500, eighth most among states.

“Burning through public money in the name of subsidized art is unfortunately common in Minnesota, but this once again demonstrates the folly of government involvement in funding of the arts,” said Jonathan Blake of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota. “It’s hard to believe this money could not have been put to better use by a federal government deep in debt.”

When reached by phone, Larson said he would email Watchdog Minnesota a statement which had not arrived at the time of this post. But LaCous, who laced the doomed replica house with accelerants at a cost of a couple thousand dollars, says the explosive artwork was worth more than it cost the public.

IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL BURN IT: Taxpayer-funded model of classic Marcel Breuer house being installed before going up in flames June 8 in St. Paul, MN. (Northern Spark photo.)

“It got a lot of exposure, it got a lot of people thinking about art in a different way,” said LaCous.  “I think the amount that was funded for that in the end was cheap.”

If art is truly in the eye of the beholder such as the taxpayer, what if there’s nothing left to behold except for ashes?

“The burned house persists not as a blank page but as a erased page, a palimpsest, a way to begin again,” explains the event website.  “Architects always glean hope from ruination—to build on old foundations, but to build anew. Value is in the fire, the spectacle of ruin, and the release of potentiality.  Therein resides hope.”




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