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On some topics, experts abound


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2000

By measuring the oak pollen on the hood of my car, I can announce with confidence that this is going to be an especially hot summer. And the first time I saw how small the roundabout was, I knew it would be unpopular.

That's because weather forecasting and traffic engineering are two of the subjects on which I think I am an expert. You probably do too, because no matter our education level or work experience, we feel we can speak authoritatively on the weather and roads. I'll add a third expertise we think we all possess: art criticism.

You don't need to be an artist to be an art critic. In fact, having artistic talent might get in the way, which leaves me well-qualified.

I once asked an artist I know for a definition of art. She still hasn't gotten back to me, and I don't blame her. It would be like asking Fred McGriff to describe his home run swing. He knows that the more he thinks about what he's doing, the more he strikes out.

So let's start here: What is art? The dictionary is no help. Its definition of art is 3 inches long, but only complicates the issue. Among the definitions are these:

"Creativity of man as distinguished from the world of nature." Let's see, nature made Clearwater Beach and man made the roundabout. Which is the greater work of art?

"A making or doing of things that display form, beauty and unusual perception." At first glance, this would seem to get closer to what art is. But much of what is called art nowadays appears to thumb its nose at form and disdain beauty. As for "unusual perception," couldn't that be another term for "aberrant behavior?" If acting weird makes you an artist, then the world is full of Rembrandts.

But let's forget theory and apply our expertise to a work in progress, one that you can't miss even if you want to: the Seminole water tank.

A picture accompanying this column shows the tank after the first day of work. Owned by Pinellas County, the tank sits near the intersection of 113th Street and 70th Avenue and has been a Seminole landmark for years. At the suggestion of a local businessman, the county decided to make the tank its first public work of art. This is progress in a county that once thought strip malls and traffic jams were "kinda pretty."

It's as though county officials woke up one day and said: "If life has given us a hulking tank, let's make it into a hulking work of art."

So artist Tom Stovall took an airbrush in hand and painted clouds on the sky blue tank. The tank's pipelike ribs became the brown bars of a huge bird cage. Soon, Stovall will add a 20-foot-tall roseate spoonbill, then a brown pelican and other birds.

Already the critics are clucking. The orangish-brown "bars" are ugly. The sky is upside down. Let the birds fly free, unfettered by a cage.

Good comments, but they don't go far enough. If an art critic is going to cast an aspersion with one hand, he or she should offer an alternative vision with the other.

Here are a few suggestions:

Forget the birds. Paint the tank white and use it as a giant screen for a laser light show every night.

Make the birds pterodactyls (I got this idea from a reader), which were fierce-looking flying reptiles, and every Saturday afternoon have a man dressed in a pterodactyl suit hang glide off the top of the tower.

Return the tank to its original color and paint a realistic-looking crack on the side. Add a spray of water so kids can play in the "leaking" water tank on summer days.

The county will probably go forward with its original plan, and that's okay. Whatever is done with the tank, it will spark comment and controversy, and that could put Seminole on the map.

One day I can imagine this conversation: Ma: "Let's visit that town with the giant bird cage."

Pa: "Where's it at?"

Ma: "Just south of that city with the roundabout."

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