Crazy Horse

It has been called an apocalyptic hell beast—equally demonic, heinous, and frightening. Will Denver ever warm to the city's most controversial piece of public art?

June 2009

It's too bad—Mustang would have made a terrific spectacle inside the airport. I would also love to see it somewhere downtown, set deep among tall buildings, where one could turn a corner and discover it suddenly and massively overhead like a great glaring ghost, a reminder to city dwellers of Denver's fierce Western history.

In 1998, Jiménez told Texas Monthly, "The purpose of public art is to create a dialogue." By that measure Mustang has certainly been a triumph. But the mere provocation of debate doesn't seem a very satisfactory purpose. Jiménez himself understood that the purposes of art are more complicated than this; at another time he said that art "belongs to the people. It has to come from the artist, but the people have to be able to identify with it."

Denver's Public Art Policy documents a long list of purposes: to enhance civic pride; to "activate" public spaces (a maddeningly vague criterion itself); to broaden citizens' understanding of art; to celebrate local history; and on and on. Some of these aims conflict with one another, and it will be a rare, perhaps impossible, piece of art that resolves those tensions successfully for every viewer. In arguments about public art, the conflicts between these purposes are what we're really arguing about.

Art, as the writer Lewis Hyde has pointed out, resides uncomfortably in an economy as relentlessly capitalistic as ours, because great art arises not out of a motivation for buying and selling, but for gifting. An artist is gifted, he speaks of his inspirations as gifts, and only in matters of art does "selling out" become a bad thing. Works of art move a society's cultural dialogue forward and provide elements for ever more complicated interrogations of the spirit and soul. But these are vague promises and can be accepted only uneasily, at best, in a society as commodified as ours. Instead we turn instinctively to more familiar terminologies of cost and value (arguments about Mustang often turn to its $650,000 price tag), or perhaps of class and politics. These issues aren't completely irrelevant or uninteresting, of course, but a work of art, by its nature, will tend to evade meaningful evaluation in these terms. And most of us don't have a lot of experience talking about art on its own terms, having abandoned art back in school with the rest of the electives. We hardly know how to begin; we don't have a vocabulary for it.

Yet, art has a way of creating its own vocabulary. A cultural vocabulary, after all, isn't just a list of words in a dictionary; it's a collection of shared references. When one sports fan says to another that Mustang's introduction has been "like Elway's rookie season," and both people know that means No. 7 struggled during his first year, the discussion can immediately move into deeper subtleties and distinctions, and so weave a richer tapestry.

An art controversy can provide a similar point of reference, and it's one that many older, larger cities already possess. The Eiffel Tower was widely despised by Parisians when it was erected (according to legend, Guy de Maupassant, the French author, ate his lunch at the base of the Eiffel Tower every day because it was the only place in the city where the structure didn't ruin the view); today, it's the very image of France. The untitled Picasso "baboon head" in Chicago roused the ire of many when it was installed in 1967, forcing the mayor to mobilize a PR campaign that included giving it birthday cakes; today, it's a generally beloved icon of the city. Richard Serra's Tilted Arc in New York became the subject of years of bitterness and epic litigation in the 1980s but failed to win the public's heart; it was eventually dismantled in the dark of night and hauled away.

Regardless of whether a consensus can be reached about Mustang, under the terms of the city's Public Art Policy, nothing can be done with it for five years after installation. It was only put in place in 2008, so Rachel has talked with the mayor's office about ways to help viewers frame Mustang in some context: brochures on the counters at rental car agencies, displays in the concourses, information for taxi and shuttle bus drivers to give to their passengers. My favorite idea is a set of cards, like baseball cards, with pictures and information about pieces of public art around the city, to be given to children arriving at DIA.

It's impossible to know whether Mustang will ultimately be adored like Chicago's Picasso or ignominiously abolished like New York's Tilted Arc. Most likely, it will end up somewhere in between. But whatever the outcome, Mustang is forcing Denver to engage in meaningful debate about public art, and when the next controversy arrives upon us, Denver will have this one as a point of common experience, a term in the vocabulary, and Denver will have a better understanding of what public art means to Denver. As I've worked through my own internal discussion, as I've researched Jiménez's art and his background (the previously mentioned Man on Fire work is fantastic, a combination of lurid colors and elegant shape, it simultaneously evokes Aztec history and the self-immolation protests of the Vietnam War), and as I've spent more time looking at Mustang (in photos; I haven't been driving in circles around DIA), I have found my opinions fluctuating, my respect for Jiménez's artistry growing, and my opposition to the location eroding a little. I'm not ready to give it up yet, but I can imagine that I might feel differently in 2013, when the ban on moving Mustang expires. I might, or I might not. I'm happy to give it time and see what happens.

Nick Arvin's first novel, Articles of War, was published in 2005. E-mail him at [email protected].