First, it was quiet. Like a street in the early hours before a parade. A feeling of ceremony hung in the air, underscored by the seats still being set up before the stage. The eyes of The Picasso―”like the eyes of every slumlord who made a buck off the small and weak, and every building inspector who took a wad from a slumlord to make it possible,” in the words of the inimitable Mike Royko―looked out over the plaza, with a stare as vacant and unimpressed as any, oblivious to the crowd beginning to assemble in its honor.
Fifty years ago, the scene was much the same (though the crowd was considerably larger then―as many as 50,000 onlookers by the Chicago Tribune’s estimate at the time―whereas Tuesday drew several hundred by most counts), and the anticipatory air that is specific to civic ceremonies surely must have been the same.
In 1967, when the tarpaulins dropped away, the crowd, by all reports, greeted this sculpture, this thing, on which the cultural identity of the city had been so hopefully pinned, with a smattering of applause, and then silence. A sharp pang of disappointment must have accompanied that first glimpse for anyone anticipating a more typical expression of monumentality and beauty.
The Picasso has, of course, become a beloved icon of Chicago, endlessly photographed, and a stop on every tourist’s to-do list, the skepticism and shock having long since worn off. Nevertheless, Tuesday’s ceremony upheld the precedent set by its forebear, as the pervasive feeling out in the crowd was once again one of confusion mingled with disappointment, this time at the lack of coherence and grandiosity expected on such an occasion.
Though the trappings of a great civic ceremony were present at this event, deemed “Everyone’s Picasso”―flags were raised, choirs sang―something wasn’t right. Perhaps this is a result of ceremony designer Paul Durica‘s failure to commit to staging the event as either a reenactment or a rededication. This insistence on blending elements of the two tread precariously the fine line between history and memory, begging the question: is 50 years enough time to have passed for such an event in the first place? What are the implications of staging a reenactment of an event from recent history―recent enough that many members of the crowd (who were asked to stand and identify themselves at one point in the ceremony) were present for the initial unveiling? And if the ceremony won’t be reenacted in full, why not merely rededicate the sculpture?
The ceremony programs articulated this awkward juxtaposition by noting the original lineup of speakers beneath each present day speaker’s name and credentials. The complete and utter lack of continuity, free of any noted justification, was startling: an Art Institute chair taking the place of a governor, a museum director standing in for a judge, and maybe most perplexingly of all, an experimental composer supplanting a rabbi. The speeches given were predominantly riddled with the standard boosterism expected from the civic pulpit, though not everyone proved capable of remaining on topic. Lisa Yun Lee, executive director of the newly christened National Public Housing Museum, somehow felt that a ceremony honoring Chicago’s legacy in public art was the appropriate time and place to relay her personal opinions relating to a variety of social issues, resulting in an uncomfortable and irrelevant interlude in the program.
A few instances, however, managed to cut through the strange trajectory of the proceedings, such as when the microphone at the speaker’s podium went out, and someone thought to strike up the Chicago Children’s Choir to fill the time until it could be brought back on, or when a lone sandwichboard-wearing, megaphone-wielding protestor circled the crowd, shouting incoherently about injustices real or imagined. These moments had a way of grounding the event, provoking a sentimental response from those prone to contemplating the complicated civic history of our great city.
The ceremony felt the most complete―felt, for the first time, correct―when Mayor Rahm Emanuel addressed the crowd. Sincerity was evident in his voice when he talked of Chicago’s storied past, of his hopes and plans for its future, without ever shying away from the city’s harsh realities, past and present.
Conspicuously absent from the speaker’s lineup were a representative from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the world-renowned architecture firm behind the Civic Center, and great proponents of the Picasso at the time of its unveiling, as well any members of the clergy. The latter seemed peculiar not only because the original ceremony included representatives of multiple faiths, but because the designers of the present day ceremony still chose to conclude the program with a benediction.
The purpose of the 1967 ceremony was, of course, to unveil the sculpture for the first time to the public. There was widespread hope leading up to this week’s ceremony that this process would be reenacted, that those present the first time could relive that moment, and those who were not would be able to come as close as possible to witnessing the gravity of that moment. This was, then, a rare opportunity to invoke the past through action, to transcend those 50 years, and allow onlookers a reason to renew their appreciation not just for this work of art, but all that it remains a symbol of. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
Artist Edra Soto, listed as “veil designer” in the ceremony program, instead produced blush-colored fans made of hardstock, which were handed out to a portion of the crowd. The face of the fans bore a printed metallic design which borrows loosely the lines of the sculpture; less an homage and more a startlingly disrespectful corruption of the hand of Picasso. The intent behind these objects (which many members of the crowd, at least in the vicinity of this reporter, initially mistook as merely being odd souvenirs) was that those present would, on cue, cover their eyes with the fans and simultaneously drop them to “unveil” the sculpture anew. Not only was this a deeply underwhelming answer to what should have been the seminal moment of the ceremony, it felt careless. It came across as an insult to the intelligence of every civic-minded party present; as though its designers felt the crowd could be satisfied with a charade on par with something intended for the amusement of a child.
In 1967, Royko wrote that immediately after the unveiling, “Most of the throng was silent…. Most just turned and walked away. They had wanted to be moved by it. They wouldn’t have stood there if they didn’t want to believe what they had been told―that it would be a fine thing.”
Last Tuesday, we would not have stood there if we hadn’t wanted to believe what we had been told. If we hadn’t wanted to be moved. Perhaps, then, disappointment is the most appropriate emotion that could have been elicited on this occasion. After all, the Picasso remains a work of art that derives its power from abstraction. It asks for far more than it gives. Why should that change, simply because 50 years have passed?