In the very center of downtown San Jose, the capital of Silicon Valley, stands the one and only public work or art commissioned by the city. It’s 8 feet tall and it cost a half million dollars.
It’s a sculpture of a huge piece of dog poop.
Not only was this done, but it’s still here. And there are no plans to remove it.
How could this be true? How on earth did it happen?
Here's the story.
your eyes and imagine a person with a lot
money and an enormous inferiority complex.
do you see happening?
San Jose is best known for not being San Francisco. We don’t have the restaurants, the theater, the cute Victorians. When you say “The City” it means San Francisco and those of us who live here pretend to accept that. But that’s like saying Dione Warwick’s pop tune is on the same level of Tony Bennett's I Left My Heart in San Francisco. Which would be delusional.
With the infusion of dot.com money, the City Fathers believed they could afford to buy some respect. Up went a subsidized Fairmont Hotel, just like they have in San Francisco. And tracks were laid and wires were strung for our cute little trolleys, some of which look exactly like cable cars. If we had a body of water, I’m sure there’d be a suspension bridge.
And what about art?
The City Fathers commissioned Robert Graham, one of the foremost sculptors in America today. He did the Olympic Arch and the Washington’s FDR memorial. He’s married to Angelica Houston and for a brief amount of time he actually lived in San Jose. (You know, San Jose, California, 45 miles south of San Francisco.). Graham was a perfect choice. He was born in Mexico City and the City Fathers wanted something that would honor our Mexican heritage and sizable Mexican-American community which was beginning to flex it’s political muscle.
Graham proposed constructing Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god. It was going to a magnificent three story bronze sculptor illuminated at night with floodlights from nearby buildings. In the center of the city, it would be our show piece; it would put San Jose on the map.
But the Arts Commission and Graham ran into disagreements. About money? About art? About Aztec myth? It depends on who you talk to. This much we know: Graham was sent back to the drawing board a number of times.
Finally, it came down to this: The Arts Commission threw up their hands and said, “Here’s $500,000. Do what ever you want.”
There’s a lesson
to be learned here.
You don’t give a
person a half million dollars and
Graham made a wax model of an 8 inch pile of dog poop which he didn’t show to anyone.
Quetzalcoatl is a protean God that often chooses the form of being half bird half serpent. Graham’s Quetzalcoatl is a coiled snake with a subtle scales in the shape of feathers. After the shock of seeing a giant piece of dog poop, you can see it’s a snake. A snake that was made to look like a pile of dog poop.
Instead of bronze, it was made of a cheap material called “rockcrete.” It was installed in the middle of the night and unveiled the next day.
When the veil was lifted, the assembled dignitaries immediately applauded, but then the applause quickly turned weak and there was stunned silence.
Arts Commissioners were cornered. “What could you have been thinking?” They pleaded innocent claiming they were victims of bait and switch.
Graham was tracked down and questioned. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s what a plumed serpent looks like” which he said like he should know.
Opposition to the statue was loud and widespread.
It became a campaign issue against an incumbent city councilperson, Blanca Alvarado, and a successful one at that. How could such a thing have happened on her watch? A half million dollars down the drain. She floundered in the polls.
But then she counterattacked.
She claimed that mocking Quetzalcoatl was a roundabout, racist way of making her ethnicity an issue. Her counterpunch included claims that her opponent, who happened to be Anglo, was insensitive to the meaning that Quetzalcoatl held for Mexican Americans. It’s a Brown Thing.
The Mexican American community quickly seized on that line of thinking that the opposition to Q was yet one more example of the White Power Structure disrespecting a proud people’s culture.
“How dare you call it shit! If it had been a white artist making a white statue, you wouldn’t call it shit! How would you like it if I called Ben Franklin shit?”
This is what they said in anger. This is what they said in public. What they said privately, among themselves, was quite different. And often said with partially suppressed giggling. But no matter. The White Power Structure had it coming.
The attack against Alvarado backfired and she won handily.
Her stunning victory has silenced opposition to this day.
I enjoy pointing out the statue of Quetzalcoatl to out-of-towners to see their reaction to one of San Jose's most celebrated works of public art.
"My God! Do you know what that looks like?" they usually say. “What is that?”
A lot of people call it the revenge of Robert Graham.
But a few nights ago, my son and I read a story about Quetzalcoatl that he checked out from the library. I didn’t see anything like Graham’s Quetzalcoatl. No coiled snake.
But I saw something.
In this particular story, Quetzalcoatl takes the form of one thing (a monkey) and then at the end of the story, transforms into something else (a huge man-eagle-snake thing) which happens to be to the advantage of the virtuous protagonist. The antagonists disparage Quetzalcoatl for what he appears to be and that is to their disadvantage.
Things are not always what they appear to be, especially objects too great to be restricted to one form. And that's not just from the teachings of Don Juan. Christians are to remember that the disheveled stranger at their front door might actually be an angel. Appearances are deceiving, especially to the insensitive and the unworthy.
No coiled snake but it got me thinking. Maybe the statue is just a piece of dog poop to the insensitive, to those who glance at it in passing, to those who assume that something of great power and great value can be frozen in time and space. Those are the antagonists, who are of little faith, of shallow depth, and they prove to be the biggest trouble for true heroes. They tell the monkey to get out of the temple and they tell the angel to get a job, or go back to Mexico.
What if this statue is actually a great statue? So great that it is like Quetzalcoatl in ways that transcend it’s current form?
Yes, it's ugly, but so was that little monkey in the story.
The antagonists in the myth felt duped by bait and switch much as the Art Commissioners felt duped by Robert Graham. Bait and switch is Quetzalcoatl's modus operandi.
The protagonist, the one pure of heart, does not look down upon the lowly monkey. Perhaps we ought not to look down on this public art.
Let’s not be too quick to loudly categorize what’s apparent.
The form it is in today may not be the form it is in tomorrow. According to the myth, how we regard it today does not determine it’s fate but it might define our character.
we need to see the patina on the rockcrete
the wings on the angel at the front door,
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