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Hippocrates said, “Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgment difficult.” I have no idea what that means. But given the fact that he lumped art in with a bunch of things to which he attached negative descriptors, I suspect Hippocrates had come to pretty much the same conclusion I have: For us amateurs, art is dangerous stuff. If you’re Hippocrates, you can fool around with medicine. If you’re a lawyer, you can figure out which edges of the legal envelope to push. But only an artist should have anything more to do with art than standing 12 feet from it and nodding sagely. I advocate the Solomon Guggenheim approach. Yes, that Solomon Guggenheim. As in the Solomon Guggenheim Museum. Mr. Guggenheim’s approach was both genuine and elegant: “All day long I add up columns of figures and make everything balance. I come home. I sit down. I look at a Kandinsky and it’s wonderful! It doesn’t mean a damn thing!” That is a healthy approach to art appreciation. And anybody who tries to get more out of it without spending a lifetime studying it is just gonna end up sounding like Hippocrates. DRIVEN MAD BY THE MUSE Why this isn’t clear to other people completely befuddles me. And why it isn’t clear to government entities is a mystery that ranks right up there with relativity, the Holy Trinity, and why people hate the designated hitter rule. State, county, and city governments get burned every time they pick up a statue to look at the price underneath. But like star-crossed moths, they keep flying back to the flame. And I’m growing tired of watching flying, flaming governments beating against my screens. I first became aware of this phenomenon 13 years ago when the city of Buffalo contracted with a sculptor for a piece of civic art, which the city did not assay to describe. They left the nature of the piece up to the discretion of the artist. Bad mistake. The discretion of the artist provided the city of Buffalo with an artwork that included � so help me � “dancing neon penises in top hats.” Go ahead, read it again. I’ll wait. This was not what the city council had in mind. (Or at least none of them was willing to admit ever having had the idea of top-hat-clad dancing neon penises in mind.) After five days � and what days they must have been � the mayor ordered it disassembled. The artist sued the city. And won. Since then, I’ve watched city after borough after township after county get all tangled up with municipal art projects gone awry. At best, they’re berated for depleting the town coffers to buy things that won’t make the buses run on time or keep rain off the taxpayers. At worst, they end up in court explaining why they painted over it, or tore it down, or paid to have it hauled away. And when those are the two ends of the spectrum, it doesn’t much matter what’s in between � it won’t be good. DON’T LET THE CHILDREN SEE Take, for example, Snohomish (please). Not long ago, the town of Snohomish, Wash., ordered a barbecue restaurant to cover up a mural on the outside of the building. The mural depicted five naked pink pigs. According to The Week magazine, “The town’s design review board said the cartoon pigs were inappropriate and might inspire other businesses to paint their walls with images of naked people.” Well, of course they might. Happens all the time. People see naked pigs on one wall, we can hardly expect them to resist painting naked people on another. You push over one naked pink domino, and you know where it leads. Trouble. Right here in River City. On the other hand, if you can’t paint pigs “naked,” what are you supposed to do? Paint pants on them? This will be a blow to artists of the realism or naturalism schools. I think Snohomish bit off more than it can chew. I think when you start worrying about whether cartoon pigs on the side of a barbecue joint are indecent, you’re approaching a slippery slope with a toboggan in your hand. I think when it comes to art, municipalities are well-advised to look the other way. A BOOZY VISION Witness the city of Los Angeles’ current brouhaha over the late Daniel Van Meter’s “Tower of Wooden Pallets.” In 1951, Van Meter learned a local brewery was about to discard 2,000 Schlitz beer pallets (you know, the wooden platforms they stack the beer cases on so the forklift operator can move them around the warehouse) and arranged to have them delivered instead to his little bungalow in Sherman Oaks. There he stacked them in concentric circles, forming a 22-foot beehive. And there they sit to this day. Or maybe I should say: There they squat. Think Angkor Wat with a hangover. The pallets are unadorned, unpainted, and � to the eye of this admitted Philistine � unprepossessing. Imagine untreated wood left to the elements for 54 years, and you can probably get the picture. The Los Angeles Times said it looked like a “ruined Mayan temple,” but they could only get away with that because there are no Mayans left to sue them. However � and, boy, howdy, is this a big “however” � to the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, the pallets are art. And not just ordinary art. Not just your garden-variety Auguste Rodin- or Alexander Calder-type art. Nosiree, these are monumental art. In 1978, the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission designated the pallets “Los Angeles Monument No. 184″ and put them on the same registry of city monuments that includes the Hollywood sign, the Pantages Theatre, and the Watts Towers. That gave “Tower of Wooden Pallets” protected status as art, much to the chagrin of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which had tried to have it removed as an “illegally stacked lumber pile.” (Everybody’s a critic.) Time passed, Van Meter passed, and after his death in 2000 his heirs made plans to hire someone with trucks and muscles to remove the pallets to a more appropriate site � like a landfill. They intended to build an apartment complex on their beloved testator’s property. But apparently you can’t just go around tearing down numbered monuments in the City of the Angels. City officials have prohibited the heirs from going forward with their development. They’ve spent five years arguing about whether the pallets can legally be unstacked. STUCK WITH ART Today, one ring of this circus is occupied by the heirs, who deride Van Meter’s, uh, work as “a rotting vestige of one man’s egotism” that “festers like a sore on the community’s body.” The second ring is occupied by the city’s planning department, which has ordered the heirs to commission a “historical and artistic analysis of Van Meter’s tower as part of an environmental impact report on the development.” And in the center ring is the tower itself, home to feral cats, termites, and probably the ghost of Daniel Van Meter. Van Meter never created another work of, um, art in his life. But his magnum opus has turned into a bureaucratic tar baby the likes of which Joel Chandler Harris would have considered outlandish on his most imaginative day. It’s a cautionary tale for all government entities that would try to brighten up the day with a painting or a sculpture � or a naked pig. No good deed goes unpunished. This fight has been going on since 2000. In horse-racing parlance, I’d say they’re halfway through the post parade right now. I think we can expect resolution of this dispute to comply with the rule against perpetuities, but just barely. It’s gonna make a lot of people unhappy for a long time. In fact, it may prove Hippocrates was right: Art is long. William W. Bedsworth is an associate justice at the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, Calif. He can be reached at [email protected]. This article previously appeared in The Recorder , an ALM publication in San Francisco.

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