09/18/2013 03:28 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

Philadelphia's Little Sculpture That Could

Every once in a while I find myself asking, what is art? I say this because many people today believe that art can be anything you want it to be. A fashion model, for instance, will refer to her walk down the runway or her pose before a magazine photographer as "art." An actor or actress will call their work in the theater "art." Art, in our time, has come to mean almost anything, from the way colorful tattoos blend into human epidermis to fancy food production in hot urban kitchens where The Chef is almost artist.

In some schools, children are taught that "everybody is an artist," and that "everybody can be an artist." (This statement, of course, is about as true as "everybody can be a mathematician").

Let's look at art in terms of works on paper or sculpture.

Consider abstract painters whose works inspire onlookers to say, "What is it?" or "What does it mean?" In some circles, the more mysterious and cryptic a piece is, the "higher" its elevation in artistic value. This brings us to Pablo Picasso. While millions were praising his works as examples of a heightened sensibility, Picasso himself was nodding his head 'no.'

"In art," Picasso wrote:

the less people understood me, the more they admired me. By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities, puzzles, rebuses, arabesques, I became famous, and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales... but when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term...I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times...

Revolutionary words, indeed!

When it comes to art as in sculpture or painting, there are as many opinions as there are stars in the sky.

Still, it is the art critic who is supposed to tell us which pictures are really fine and which ones are bad or just so-so. The problem is, most people do not listen to art critics. The work of Thomas Kinkade may have grossed millions but it still draws jeers and sneers from art people in the know. "This is crass commercialism," they say. While those critics may be right, what about the millions of people who love this kind of art? After all, if one were to measure both camps, the museum quality fine art lovers versus the "hang it in my living room" commercial art camp, the latter would win out in terms of numbers every time.

Consider what happened to Jeffrey Little and Stephen R. Saymon's idea for a 9/11 memorial sculpture in Philadelphia's Franklin Park. The proposal was a design of a small Liberty Bell on a suspension bar placed between replicas of the twin towers. As reported by The Inquirer, Little, who is a building contractor, drew the initial idea on a napkin, decided he liked it and then showed it to friends and colleagues like police and firefighters, all of whom loved it too. In fact, they liked it so much that Little felt encouraged to go see Mayor Nutter, who liked the design so much that he imagined it being built in a prominent corner of Franklin Square.

When U.S. Rep Bob Brady saw Little's design, he threw in his approval as well. The design seemed like a winner.

Everybody seemed to love the little design that could.

Why not? While the design wasn't fine art, it was a smart piece of commercial art that would seem to be right at home in a little park where the main attraction is a gigantic piece of working folk art, a beautiful carousel. The "cute" sculpture was even reminiscent of the take-home knick knacks tourists from around the world take home after their visit to Philadelphia.

Trouble for the design came in the form of The Philadelphia Art Commission.

The Commission called the design "cartoonish with an amateurish design," and told Little that it was not acceptable. "There's a mismatch between the memorial's main imagery and its subject matter," they declared, straightening their bow ties. On the message board under the Inquirer story about the design, some message posters found amusement in the fact that Little first designed the memorial on a napkin, forgetting that Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Dali also did scores of napkin designs. Great ideas, of course, can spring from anywhere.

The Art Commission's rejection reminded me of the Rocky statue debate in the 1980s. At that time the Commission decided that the Rocky statue was not art but something alien produced by the commercial world. This judgment came despite Andy Warhol's claim that art is anything you want it to be (Campbell's soup cans; a box of Brillo pads, etc.), and despite the fact that so much of art, especially of the abstract kind, confuses the eye of so many beholders.

But there's no confusion in Little's design.

While I personally believe we don't need another 9/11 memorial (there's already a 9/11 memorial piece in the city's Schuylkill Banks area), Little's design is anything but overbearing or ponderous. It has a miniaturized doll house kind of charm that fits right in with the carousel.

In fact, it's the sort of minor commercial piece that fits in splendidly with the Independence Hall area. It would speak to tourists in a much better way than the skeletal design of the Presidents House does. The Presidents House is a huge mismatch between the main imagery and the subject matter, since it is not about George Washington at all but about the slaves that Washington owned.

Always keep in mind that one man or one woman's art is another's "load of plaster," or "insult to the senses," such as Jacques Lipchitz's Government of the People was to former Mayor Frank Rizzo, who hated the work with a passion. "Maybe I don't know anything about art; it's not my background," Rizzo is on record as saying. "But I looked at it and tried to be fair. It looks like some plasterer dropped a load of plaster. I like art.... it was us Italians who started most of it."

Claes Oldenburg's Clothespin in Center Square is also somewhat of an urban mismatch, since it relates to nothing in the environment except obscure Tide television commercials from the 1960s. When I interviewed writer Susan Sontag during one of her many visits to Philadelphia before her death in 2004, she talked about the Clothespin in less than glowing terms: "Philadelphia is weird," she told me then, "What other city would put a sculpture of a clothespin in the center of downtown?"

And what about the crazy little iron sculpture in front of the Municipal Services Building? It is an iron without an ironing board (and spray starch), a virtual toy, the same word used to describe Little's design.

While we're on the subject of mismatches, what about the Robert Venturi designed Benjamin Franklin House, which in dire circumstances, could double as a children's swing and gymnasium set?

How ironic that Mayor Nutter, who liked Little's design, appointed eight members to the Philadelphia Art Commission in 2008. The appointees were a landscape architect, a famous abstract painter and professor from Moore College of Art, the President of the University of the Arts, the Principal of a leading architectural firm, the president of the arts and business council and a lawyer.

While the above resume titles may have all the right stuff for a guest spot on Philadelphian Marty Moss-Coane's Radio Times, there doesn't seem to be a grassroots art sensibility in this group at all.