This is a case of public Art short on artfulness. “Stand Tall, Stand Loud,” a 16-foot high rusted metal frame of a stylized man’s body topped with a hangman’s noose in place of the head, was installed in Riverside Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side last week as part of New York’s public art program. A quote from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the base of the figure calls for an end to bigotry: “Our lives begin to die the day we are silent about the things that matter.” Aaron Bell who designed the sculpture said in his mission statement that the work stands for all hate in America.

But sculpture is a visual art and needs to “stand loud” without words.

The noose speaks of a shameful chapter in American history when lynch mobs strung up African-American men from trees for the supposed crime of being black. The noose, then, is a symbol, like a recognizable road sign. There’s nothing to take you beyond the literal, beyond this lone visual element.  Shades of meaning, metaphor are missing. Without this, you don’t have art. You have a symbol, a trademark. Not surprising. Bell used to be an ad man.

What does art look like?

You may be asking at this point what artful public art looks like. What public art holds more than one visual element to ponder? One well-known example is Michelangelo’s “David,” originally installed in Florence’s town square. The boy’s nudity sent a message right off. By exposing his body as he faced the giant Goliath emphasized his defenselessness before the powerful enemy of his people.

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David’s bare form made his ultimate victory all the more wondrous.

Then there’s the determined nonchalance in his casual stance, which suggests his effort to put on a brave front. Michelangelo made extra sure his fellow Florentines knew the boy’s courage by carving into his forehead a worry line signifying fear. Conveying David’s awareness of the danger he faced made his effort an act of courage.

What does might look like?

Wait; there are other visual elements that say still more. David hides a stone in one hand and nonchalantly totes a sling over his shoulder, all to convey an image of reined-in strength. Standing strong before an enemy without a warrior stance stood for Florence’s civic pride at a time when the city was under threat from forces outside and within.

“David” was intended to grace the Cathedral of Florence dome, but the city fathers opted to set it in the street to remind people of the boy’s valor. But it was the cumulative effect of all the visual elements that made it rich with meaning, that made it art.  

You have only to compare Michelangelo’s “David” to fellow sculptor Donatello’s version to know the importance of artfulness. Donatello’s David tells the story after the battle with the boy standing with one foot on the Philistine’s severed head. You get none of the fears that he overcame. You get artlessness.