The David in the Subway

I Heart Public Art

I owe art critic Jerry Saltz some credit for a poem of mine. “Sonnet for the David in the Subway,” which won first prize in the Helen Schaible International Sonnet Contest late last year, was born after I watched Saltz’s Vulture video feature. The setup? A man, a statue of a naked man, a subway station, and a camera.

In Saltz’s web series, “The Big Picture,” there are several videos that involve exposing NYC subway commuters to so-called “great” works of art and soliciting their opinions. These are wonderful to watch. Masterpiece or Piece of Sh*t? asks the sign that Saltz has erected nearby. An expert in this domain, Saltz openly welcomes the opinions of a diverse array of subway riders with absolute seriousness. In the video above, you shouldn’t be surprised to see that many of the passers-by offer fairly astute commentary on the sculpture of David (a high-quality replica, of course).

Saltz states his main project outright in a voiceover: what’s the deal with this sculpture? Who is he? “Do you need to be an art bigwig to even know or care?” he asks. And so Saltz installs himself in a subway terminal with his friend David and waits, hook baited. The results are lovely. Sure, some commuters make fun of the sculpture’s “small” penis or giggle about his voluptuous butt (“one of the great butts,” Saltz deadpans). This is supposed to be fun! And, I might add, those responses are valid: making folks feel like they can’t comment on the sculpture’s nudity in a contemporary, organic, sexual way is ultimately elitist. But Saltz welcomes all reactions and takes each one seriously: When one commuter notes that you have to do squats to get a butt like the David’s, Saltz even joins him for a few squats on camera to feel the burn.

But overall, the passers-by make some astute comments that Saltz latches onto so he can teach the viewer even more. For example, one viewer notes that the hands (and everything else) are much larger in the original 17-foot sculpture and have more detail. Saltz agrees and takes a moment to remark that the veins the viewer pointed out in the David’s hands are pronounced; this denotes blood pooling while the subject waits to use his slingshot against the mythical Goliath.

I respect Saltz’s project immensely: he’s attempting to make fine arts more public-facing, trying to remove the erudition from the study and appreciation of humankind’s most significant works. He takes the same approach when he displays Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Picasso’s Guernica to subway passengers as well, and with similar results. Impassioned straphangers act out the windy currents of the Dutchman’s most famous canvas and note the nonsensical chaos of the Spaniard’s anti-war painting. In short, Saltz is taking art out of the ivory tower and down into the underground, if only for a few insightful minutes.

All of this, to borrow some dated slang, is kind of my jam. It’s what I’m trying to do that here at PopPoetry.

Though statistics on citations (and the question of what counts as a citation) are tricky, it’s estimated that some 82% of scholarly articles on the humanities (in a sense, experts speaking to other experts) are never cited. Forgive me if you’ve heard me drone on about this at a party or read it in another post; I will never get tired of marveling at this statistic. I often wonder what the value of such insular work is in our society.

Poetry, as a genre, though more popular now than it has been for ages, still occupies a somewhat insular corner of our culture. I would argue that this has to do with its connotation of book-learnin’ and big words—the idea that one has to hold advanced degrees to gain anything meaningful from it. As a poet, I have long considered what to do about this, and what it means to write in a genre that most folks feel is “not for them” or “over their heads,” no matter how true or untrue that may be.

The universe has openly invited me to consider this question. In 2018, I began working in arts nonprofit management after spending seven years working in higher ed (and spending my life from toddlerhood until age 30 in school). I taught at a university for the better part of a decade and sold the value of art to folks who already believed me (English majors). After several years, this started to feel strange—a bit like preaching to the choir. Leaving academia has only strengthened the nascent interest I had back then in public-facing arts instruction. Working for Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp has given me more opportunities to reach young people who love art in a non-academic context. One example: I was thrilled to record a series of freely available instructional creative writing videos for their VirtualArts program. I’ve come to view that experience as one that is deeply engaged with the same work I’m trying to do here at PopPoetry.

If you zoned out during that moment of self-indulgent autobiography: fear not. Here’s the point: living my day-to-day life in the “real world” (whatever that is) has allowed me to think more deeply about making art matter to folks who have not spent their lives thinking about it the way I have. At this stage, I have more opinions than outright “answers,” but I do know these things would help:

  1. Creating opportunities for organic, low-stress engagement with all forms of art

  2. De-mystifying even the thorniest art forms (No, the opera isn’t just for dudes who sound like Frasier)

  3. Increasing access to art and art instruction for folks of all socioeconomic backgrounds

  4. Tying unfamiliar art forms to familiar ones (cough… like the post I’m working on about Mad Men and Frank O’Hara)

Saltz does this. I’m trying to do this. I think Bob Ross was trying to do this (more, much more, on that later!)

We need more folks gawking at the David’s junk while they wait for the 6 train. And by that, I mean we need more friction between popular culture and so-called “high art.” We need to erase the concept of high art. We need to teach art at all levels and rescue art classes from their first-on-the-chopping-block status in educational budget cuts. We might consider integrating art more fully with our lives (and not just television, though we’re undoubtedly living through the Golden Age of great TV). And for that to happen, we need to champion public-facing arts instruction that allows learners from different walks of life, different socioeconomic levels, and diverse educational backgrounds to glean something meaningful from art appreciation and art-making.

The sonnet that won the Schaible contest, “Sonnet for the David in the Subway,” imagines a world that is much more openly intertwined with various art forms in a way that feels organic and even magical. What if art were just… available. Everywhere. Every-damn-where. What if we were better equipped to understand it and be open to it (thanks to de-mystification and democratization). What would it do to us?


His marble haunches draw their tired eyes, stick

to their tongues like the hush of marshmallow fluff.

Shamed by his demure, unguarded twig, they lick

desire from their unmoving lips. Why not stuff

each aperture of dawn’s commute with willing art:

Sistine each public restroom’s dung-dull ceiling

and ask each semi truck’s horn to squall Mozart?

A bus-stop matinee of Godot—would it be appealing?

If each bland parking ticket were a solemn poem,

every advert a shard of cinema, would the world

quit dervishing its tired old dance of loathsome

anger, or keep its Scrooge-like brush hand curled?

Like breath, our beauty’s greatest in benediction:

a million Grecian urns to hold our common fiction.

What a world that would be.

I’m looking forward to continuing to write and think about these topics in future posts, and I’d love to hear from you. As always, feel free to comment! I would be delighted to have a discussion. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram or check out my website.

If you know anyone who might be interested in the kind of topics I’ve been writing about here, let them know or forward them a link! Thanks for reading.

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