Inappropriate Poem Raises Question: Why Public Art?

As part of the renovation of Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, lanterns with text circling them are to be erected at the corner of 7th and Nicollet. They are designed by an artist named Blessing Hancock, and will look something like this:


Several poets were commissioned to write poems that would be displayed on the lanterns. One of the poets, Junauda Petrus, wrote a poem the title of which couldn’t be reproduced in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The Strib rendered it as “A Prayer for P*****s.” Controversy ensued:

A poem heavy with allusions to the female anatomy has been blocked from public display on the redesigned Nicollet Mall, prompting a vigorous debate over public art and free speech with Trump-era overtones.
The text of the rejected poem, which would have encircled one of the lanterns designed by artist Blessing Hancock, includes two direct references to female genitalia.

Petrus said the poem was in part a response to Trump’s statement from 2005, which came to light in October, suggesting he groped women.

The Star Tribune didn’t reproduce “A Prayer for P*****s,” but Ms. Petrus posted it on her Facebook page, along with an “Open Letter to the City of Minneapolis,” in which Petrus complained of being censored. First, here is the poem. Warning: it is not for children.

A Prayer for Pussies

Grown women know that feeling.
You a little girl under all that skin.
All of that life and holding back.
All of that gray coochie hair
And planted placentas under the tree the kids climb,
when hiding from spankings.
Under piles of unpaid bills and expired lottery tickets.
In your shadow sits that girl within.
Wise and wild.
Quiet and unforgiving.
Indignant and quick.
Clitoris driven.
An emotional wreck with soulful perfection.
Plotting on wildness
You start thinking:
Remember when I was all one hot heat?
One red ferocious flash?
One smooth sweet licorice?
One free flying unknown?

I won’t comment on whether it is a good poem; that is strictly in the eye of the reader. But I think we can agree with those responsible for creating the lanterns that it is not appropriate for display on the Nicollet Mall.

Ms. Petrus’s “open letter” is revealing. She represents a stereotypical point of view. This is how she begins:

I give thanks to the sacred, indigenous ancestors to this land and the ways they are influencing spirits in these times as we continue the journey to light and justice. I gives thanks to the ancestors of my blood, who guide my heart and have paved the way for my life as a healer through the realm of art.

This is how she describes the poets who were selected for the lantern project:

Three talented poets and I were selected to create original pieces for this endeavor. We are First Nations and first generation, Muslim and Queer, Minneapolis-born and diasporic, all of us with poet hearts.

I am guessing, somehow, that there weren’t any conservatives in the group. And yet, “radical” though she may claim to be, Petrus was happy to accept $2,000 in what I assume was taxpayer money. Three of her other poems will still be displayed on the Nicollet Mall lanterns.

This is what Petrus calls censorship:

I am indignant to this censorship by the City of Minneapolis, especially when there is a renaissance of elected, emboldened, hate-filled and money-driven bigots who do not love this world like I do. I will not be silenced or confused while they are revered and bowed down to.

Of course, there won’t be any pro-Trump poetry on display on the mall. That would be unthinkable! Is that censorship? If not, why not?

Episodes of this sort are rather common, and they raise the question: what is the purpose of public art? Why should taxpayers pay for it, and–even if, in some cases, private benefactors pick up the tab–why should public spaces be devoted to it? Why, exactly, is it worthwhile to have lanterns with script running around them displayed on Nicollet Mall? Are they beautiful objects? Or is the content of the writing the main point?

Historically, governments thought it was appropriate to erect monuments to, and statues of, national heroes, in order to instill patriotism. London, for example, is full of art of this sort. Washington, D.C., likewise, has beautiful and meaningful monuments and statues that continue to draw crowds.

But patriotism is out of style, and that obviously isn’t a purpose to which the City of Minneapolis would subscribe. What, then, is the point? Trees and fountains are commonly used to beautify public spaces, and are nearly always non-controversial. Public art can be used for this purpose, the problem most often being that many people don’t find it beautiful.

Here we have something else, that might be described as pedagogical art. The idea is not, however, to instill pride or patriotism; quite the reverse. Junauda Petrus hates America:

Fear and an addiction to the failing and falling phallus of white supremacy has TAKEN presidency. Right now a pantheon is being assembled to protect and empower the right for deranged thinking, soul-lessness, rape culture and white supremacy to CONTINUE to be central to “American” identity and its experience. That was the America claimed by “the forefathers” and the one attempted to be “Made Great Again.” Enslavers of stolen souls, rapists, liars, thieves of land and architects of the American caste system is their legacy, men ensuring only their own freedoms as they proclaimed to identify with liberty. They lived and codified this lie. This fact is not to be forgotten or gotten twisted, that is the truth of America.

One shudders to think what the three poems that were selected by the City for display will be like!

If the real purpose of “art” like that under discussion here is to advance a left-wing, anti-American agenda, why should American taxpayers pay for it? Why should the City of Minneapolis sponsor it? And why should members of the public who frequent one of the busiest spaces in Minnesota be subjected to it?