Ethics Quiz: Public Art Ethics

“Ancestor,” a new sculpture by Bharti Kher,  has been chosen to reside at the Fifth Avenue and 60th Street entrance to Central Park in New York City for the next year. It’s 18 feet tall, has 24 heads (detail below)….

…and is made to look old and weathered, though it was cast in bronze and is fresh out of the oven, or whatever. The Times says,

“Ancestor” is, at its core, an Indian goddess form, the kind found in Hindu popular iconography, with hair that rises in a bun yet somehow also hangs in a braid. But protruding in clumps pell-mell from her upper body are 23 extra heads, each with its own expression, peering this way and that.

You can read about what the artist thinks this mess means here. I don’t even have a coherent quiz question to pose, just a group of puzzled queries that follow my immediate, “What the hell?”

One definition of public art I found quickly, which is essentially what I assumed and as good as any, is: Public art adds enormous value to the cultural, aesthetic and economic vitality of a community. It is now a well-accepted principle of urban design that public art contributes to a community’s identity, fosters community pride and a sense of belonging, and enhances the quality of life for its residents and visitors.”


  • How does “Ancestor” fulfill that mission for Central Park?
  • What community, New Delhi?
  • Presumably a Christian icon in the same location within Doris C. Freedman Plaza would not be considered “inclusive.” How is a Hindu goddess appropriate?
  • This exhibition cost money. Is it a responsible use of public funds? Any public funds?
  • If that thing qualifies as public art, what doesn’t qualify as public art?
  • What the hell?

14 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Public Art Ethics

  1. That statue doesn’t fit into my sphere of being “art”. It appears to me to be some kind of virtue signaling although I have absolutely no idea what virtue it’s signaling and I can’t read the meaning because it’s currently behind a pay wall.

  2. DEI allows for religious expression so long as it’s not Christian. Remember, in Woke World, ethnicity & religion are virtually synonymous.

  3. Much of modern art is beyond my Rush-and-Dr. Pepper-infused mind, but this is what I read about the artist and her statue:

    “Bharti Kher’s 18-foot tall painted bronze sculpture will grace Doris C. Freedman Plaza at the entrance to Central Park, marking the most ambitious work in her career. Works in Kher’s “Intermediaries” series, which she has been developing for five years, begin as miniature sculptures sourced by the artist from secondhand markets across India. These small clay figurines are avatars of humans, animals, and mythical beings that she repairs and reassembles into hybrid forms. For Kher’s largest work in this series, she will pay homage to and celebrate the position of the mother as a figure of empowerment, creation, and refuge, who manifests as both human and otherworldly. More than 20 heads adorn the front of the mother’s body, embodying male and female multiplicity. She is draped traditionally in a sari, and the artist has elaborated a fantastical hairstyle with a multi-lobed bun and three long braids. Kher’s depiction creates an image of a powerful goddess with her multicultural and diverse children. She embodies the possibility for an interconnected and a shared sense of belonging.”

    Perhaps there is some Hindu significance to the figure with many heads. Perhaps it refers to the maternal element of women, kind of like the “Earth Mother” or a Russian nesting doll or some similar significance.

    Art is, by its very nature subjective. I disagree with Steven above – just because I don’t like something or I am not moved by a piece of art doesn’t mean that it is inferior or insignificant or some sort of artistic virtue signaling. It could simply mean I don’t understand it or I just don’t like it. For instance, I am not a great lover of Western art – Frederick Remington, et al. But, I recognize that other love it and hold it highest esteem. Some of those same people shrug their shoulders at Dalí or Picasso or Kahlo, whose works I might or might not appreciate.


    • johnburger2013 wrote, “I disagree with Steven above – just because I don’t like something or I am not moved by a piece of art doesn’t mean that it is inferior or insignificant or some sort of artistic virtue signaling.”

      I think you misunderstood my comment. I really don’t think I gave the impression that “just because I don’t like something or I am not moved by a piece of art doesn’t mean that it is inferior or insignificant or some sort of artistic virtue signaling”. I certainly didn’t give the impression that it was inferior or insignificant. I have absolutely no idea how you got all of that from what I wrote and that certainly wasn’t my intent.

      Maybe I should have separated those two sentences into two completely separate paragraphs.

      “Kher’s depiction creates an image of a powerful goddess with her multicultural and diverse children. She embodies the possibility for an interconnected and a shared sense of belonging.”

      That description strongly suggest virtue signaling.

    • “She embodies the possibility for an interconnected and a shared sense of belonging.”

      This is just funny, and why so much of “art” is self-parody. Heads entirely up their own posteriors.

  4. I like it. To me, any piece that doesn’t make you say “what the hell” is probably unremarkable. So, job well done! The outrage that Denver seemed to experience with Blucifer was insane those first 2 years. Now it’s frickin’ mascot for the region. Thankfully, they have a policy that states any art installation must remain for 5 years, primarily due to the cost involved in putting it in place, but it has the added bonus of preventing knee-jerk reactions.

  5. If the purpose of modern art is to launder money, then this piece has probably done its job well. If the purpose of modern art is to spark discussion, well, we are talking about this piece.
    If I remember correctly, the Hindu god that is associated with heads is associated mainly with death. So maybe the message is that we all die and return to the warm embrace of Mother Death? Though I don’t think that fits well with reincarnation.
    Regardless, if the statue brings more people to Central Park, it’ll probably get a few more bucks into the local economy. If the local vendors see an increase in profit more than the cost of fabrication and installation, then the statue is a success.

  6. Central Park has MANY statues and pieces of public art. Most are pretty conventional, although some, like Columbus’s statue toward the south end, are no longer considered politically correct by the left. There are a few that are generically religious, like the angel that adorns the fountain, also toward the south end. There are a few that are vaguely mythological, like the dancing Graces at the northwest corner in the conservatory gardens (visit that one in April or October if you can, it really looks beautiful when freshly planted with flowers). A lot are historical, like the largest one of Polish king Ladislas III Jagiello. Only one was considered controversial enough to move, that of slave-experimenting physician J. Marion Sims, although the study that led to that was undertaken before the death of George Floyd made everything go completely crazy. There are none that are disturbing to look at. A park is supposed to be a somewhat relaxing experience, and something that’s going to be by nature jarring or disturbing isn’t supposed to be part of that. That goes double for something that’s going to be at an entrance and harder to avoid.

    As for overtly religious stuff, I really don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule. I’ve seen Celtic crosses that honor Irish regiments or other things Irish. OK, it’s nothing that unusual. I’ve seen other crosses that honor the Armenian genocide and diaspora. OK, supposedly Armenia was the first nation to declare itself a Christian one. I’ve seen Holocaust monuments with stars of David and at least one statue of Moses bearing the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. OK, that’s nothing all that unusual, although I find the addition of horns (due to a mistranslation of the Biblical Hebrew for “rays” as “horns,” what he really should have is a halo) a bit off-putting since it’s vaguely demonic. I’ve also seen Greek and Norse deities, but since they look essentially human, they are no big deal. I’ve also seen meditating Buddha figures in Eastern-themed gardens, which never bothered me much since it was to create a mood of peace and tranquility. Overt Christian religious figures might or might not look out of place depending on the context – St. Joan of Arc in honor of Franco-American allyship, Mother Cabrini in honor of immigrants, or St. Francis in a place devoted to nature would probably all be ok or at least not jarring.

    Once you start leaving the natural forms and entering the bizarre, the biologically preposterous, or the deliberately ugly, that’s another story. Most of us western types wouldn’t look twice at a winged horse on a pedestal or a fish-tailed sea deity adorning a fountain. Dragon sculptures might be all right too, again especially in an Eastern setting where they are supposed to be good creatures. If we start getting into ugliness or creatures who are supposed to be evil, like Cerberus the three-headed dog who guarded the gates of the Greek underworld or the six-headed monster Scylla, then that might raise some eyebrows, because those things are deliberately horrific, and maybe that’s not something we need to add to our experience. Deliberate alteration of the basic human form is also disturbing, at least to most western people. Even relatively mild stuff like Janus, the Roman god of portals, who had one face in front and one behind, or the Christian St. Denis, often shown carrying his own head, doesn’t sit right with us, because something isn’t right here. When you start adding multiple heads and limbs, then you’ve moved beyond the western experience and into sights we really find disturbing. It’s possible to appreciate some of the Hindu bronzes, since some, mostly from the Chola period, are cast (by a process called the lost wax method) in a graceful if odd manner, like the famous statue of the Hindu god Siva as “Lord of the Dancers.”

    It’s not really possible to appreciate this. It’s disturbing, it’s odd, it’s not at all graceful, and it’s downright ugly. One of the communist goals for an American takeover was “eliminate all good sculpture from parks and buildings, substitute shapeless, awkward and meaningless forms.” If this isn’t that, I don’t know what is.

  7. As the adage rightly says, “Beauty is in the eye f the beholder.” Therefore, “Art is in the eye of the beholder.” I can stay for hours in the Renaissance galleries of any museum. I linger with impressionists, I dawdle through Picasso. However, Pollock and others I categorize as mere paint splashers ( the most recent of which is Mr. Hunter Biden) leave me to say, “What the f***k is that? and question the financial sanity of those who buy and display them with pride.

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