New York

Richard Prince

Times Square

Over six years ago, Public Art Fund Inc. initiated an unusual project in Times Square. With the cooperation of Spectacolor, Inc., they began to sponsor programmed spots by artists on that company’s large electronic signboard, which is prominently positioned on the north side of the marble-clad office building at 1 Times Square. Since the inception of “Messages to the Public” in January 1982, 77 artists have presented projects there. Generally, each one runs for about 30 seconds and is repeated every 15 to 20 minutes during its month-long run. Sandwiched between advertising and public service announcements, “Messages to the Public” provides a charged and provocative forum for artists to work in a temporary format with the elements of Spectacolor: color, light, movement, and time itself. These ephemeral works have tested and expanded ideas about public art. By bringing work into the glitzy Times Square milieu and situating it in close proximity to advertising and the techniques of aggressive persuasion, Public Art Fund Inc. has created an important forum for the investigation and critique of public art, its place in the city, and its possible forms and constitution in the late 20th century.

I have seen only a few “Messages to the Public,” but the ones I saw used the unusual medium and venue to explore the potentially propagandistic qualities of art: Alfredo Jaar's A Logo for America, 1987, which explored the concept of “the other” through our perceptions of North and South American cultures, and Jerri Allyn’s A Lesbian Bride, 1987, which presented the marriage of a lesbian couple in traditional nuptial garb.

This past January, Richard Prince used his 30 seconds of Spectacolor to tell a joke three times in quick succession: “I went to see a psychiatrist. He said, ‘Tell me everything.’ I did, and now he’s doing my act.” Jokes only need to be repeated if there is no laughter, no recognition—that is, if no one really gets it. Repetition doesn’t make the forgettable joke memorable, but it makes the tragic nuances of the comic more conspicuous. The presentation of a big joke (with little humor) to the public in Times Square is evidence that a simple and clear idea can address a complex, collective psychic condition. Prince’s project also raised more predictable but important questions about the affinities between art and advertising. The use of text in art has challenged the proposition that art is somehow different and more rarefied than the obvious intentions and vulgarities of advertising. That Prince took this prime advertising space just to share a joke—and to repeat it three times in a row—was a loaded message. His comment on the ludicrousness of the situation of 30 seconds of art in Times Square was a strong statement. Clearly, humor is sometimes the only available access to the irony in any situation. This was his modest, incisive spectacle.

“Messages to the Public” is one of the most original and explosive contexts for public art in the city. Because the projects are ephemeral, artists have more of an opportunity to address topical issues of the culture briskly and directly, and the extreme qualities of the Times Square environment encourage an imaginative approach. Prince used the edge of desperation communicated in the bad joke as his particular locus for action. After all, it was not such a bad joke—and it was a very good idea.

Patricia C. Phillips