Against Subway Art

The MTA thinks it can teach us something about beauty. Get outta here!

In March 2019 an exasperated commuter superimposed a hint of self-awareness on one of the William Wegman Weimaraner mosaics installed at the 23rd Street F/M subway station the year before. “I suck,” said one of Wegman’s anthropomorphized dogs in the scribbled speech bubble. Within hours the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) had dispatched a team to remove the confession, proudly tweeting a photo of the wiped-clean tile surface.

Of course, the mosaic still sucks, and the grimy sepia station sucks even more, and the New York City subway even more than that. In lieu of addressing faulty century-old switchboards and decrepit stations, the MTA commissions art for its crumbling walls and, with ruthless efficiency, eliminates any threats to its regime of aesthetic banality. The problem is less one of gilding the lily than of nickel-plating the turd. Whether subway art can, or even ought to, not suck is as open a question today as it was for its earliest advocates.

The fact that the city’s subway is cobbled together from privately operated lines built at the turn of the twentieth century renders its nodal spaces a postmodern stew. The elevated Gates Avenue J station makes no effort to announce its history—opened in 1885, it’s the oldest in the system—to the Walgreens and McDonald’s below, the latter plucked straight from suburban sprawl, drive-through and all. City Hall Station, the Rafael Guastavino–designed gem of the 1904 underground line, was decommissioned in the ’40s when its curved platform could not accommodate the new ten-car trains. Trains now use it as a turnaround to make their way back uptown; curious passengers and TikTokers can stay on past the last stop on the 6 line to catch a glimpse of the glowy Catalan vaults and stained-glass skylights.

Complaints about the subway are nearly as old as the subway itself. In 1916, a writer railed against the lack of clear signage in New York’s system, objecting to the fact that “ornamentation instead of information” decorated station walls. Ornamentation indeed, but not pleasing. In 1936, a New York Post op-ed kvetched):

Why do we tolerate the present unsightly stations, caverns which combine the worst features of forgotten catacombs, abandoned wine cellars and the settings for some of the late Lon Chaney epics?

That same year the Works Progress Administration’s Public Use of Arts Committee (PUA) stepped in with a (non) solution of its own: put some art on it. Regrettably, the committee did not aspire much toward deploying ornamentation as a means of organizing space or a wayfinding mechanism, an omission that gives most subway art today its arbitrary copy-paste aesthetic.

Instead, the PUA had a loftier aim: to bring art to the people. Secular civic art dates back to the French Revolution, when the third estate expropriated the treasures of la noblesse and deployed it for the moral edification of the newly sovereign public. The loosening of art from the mandates and purposes of church and court set it free to explore purely sensible aesthetic concerns wherever they might lead, even as it wrenched open a gap that would only widen between increasingly obscure artistic concerns and popular taste—avant-garde and kitsch. Art is good, and good for the public, but does the public want or deserve good art? For the milieu of the PUA, the focus was to be first on the public, even if it meant concessions to “quality.” Art historian Meyer Schapiro proposed, in a 1936 address to the subway workers’ union, that

It is necessary, then, if workers are to lend their strength to the artists in the demand for a government supported public art, that the artists present a program for a public art which will reach the masses of the people…

Proposals for such mass art were organized by the PUA and shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938. It was a rare populist exhibition at a decidedly un-populist museum that placed emphasis on material innovations capable of withstanding the unique pressures of the underground. The mock-ups on display, MoMA was careful to note, were not exactly good. “From the point of view of artistic quality or appropriateness of style and subject matter,” the catalog read, “the artists themselves feel that the project is at present in a formative stage.” Ouch. Given a ballot with a choice of scenes they would like to see rendered in the stations, visitors to the exhibition voted overwhelmingly for landscapes and urban pastorals over abstraction, historical scenes, politically engaged or futuristic tableaus. The subway workers’ union requested escapist panoramas, but were instead offered scenes of the subway they were toiling in.

Whatever form those proposals might have taken remains a mystery. The project was abandoned in a tangle of city politics and waning willpower. The current institution for the art of the subways, MTA Arts & Design (formerly Arts in Transit), was founded some decades later, in 1985. By this point art’s attenuated crisis of confidence, having endured a battering from institutional critique, expressed itself less in enthusiastic outreach to the masses than a dejected flight from its own institutions. At the same time, the repressive response to the 1970s crime wave and the advent of broken windows policing created a demand for a public art less of utopian moral uplift and more of authoritarian moral discipline. A New York Times article from 1989 reported:

Subway riders are familiar with art that is both provocative and controversial, since the system long served as a gallery for some of the nation’s most prolific graffiti artists. Now that many of the trains and stations are free of those psychedelic runes, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has turned willing art patron: it has set aside a bit of its budget for art and begun assembling a subterranean collection of sculptures, lights and murals.

Not only was it assumed that vandals would hesitate to deface artworks, but many graffiti artists were also recruited in the production of the new, official subway art. In other words, art was a petty-crime deterrent. And to this day, it has proved more easily accomplished than structural attention to crumbling systems, transit, or criminal justice.

This turn in public art conformed to the aspirations of the beleaguered aesthetes at art schools and in newspaper columns who had lost faith in their institutions, and of the emerging state managerial apparatus, for whom sanctioned and organized subway art was an antidote to the lawlessness (aesthetic and otherwise) of the ’70s. While the second constituency could acknowledge in some shaded form its investment in paternalism, the former could do no such thing, for to do so would be to admit the elitism they so disdained yet relied upon.

Public art is often touted as a “democratizing” force. This is true only if we believe the demos is a rabble of children.

The paternal and pacifying motives behind public works do not make them bad (see: art museums). An early posthumous work by Romare Bearden at the Westchester Square 6 stop was rightly praised in 1994 for its “Matissean blues” that pushed against the quality/ popularity dichotomy. Playful flora and fauna mosaics at the Natural History Museum stop (installed in 1999) act as an extension of the museum exhibits; they are far from contemplative fine art, but everything subway art should be: they bring some of the aboveground world below. Whether these examples are kitschy is beside the point— subway art is kitsch in all its sentimental and affirmative glory. The few attempts artists have made to trouble this outlook are so mild-mannered that they end up proving the norm. The multi-artist Oculus mosaics at Chambers Street are strange but not creepy. The bronzes scattered by Tom Otterness (2000) throughout the Eighth Avenue and Fourteenth Street L station are delightfully odd and just a bit sinister, a quality amplified by the knowledge that Otterness once shot a dog in the name of art.

Paternalism becomes problematic when it collapses into anesthetizing infantilization, when the parent’s goal is not to raise the child but keep her juvenile and dependent in perpetuity. The 1930s MoMA, with its distinction between subway art and the real art on regular display, already betrayed doubt that such maturity was possible. Those Wegman dogs, dressed in fun autumn wear and lacking any hint of ambivalence, cater primarily to small children. Worse, they are made in the form of permanent advertising posters: rectangular image portals on walls where commodities would otherwise be hawked. The Chuck Close mosaics on the new Second Avenue line make the same mistake: copies of Close’s paintings (which, one might recall, derived their ostensible artistic quality as comments on paintings) are rendered in mosaic rectangles. Is there something better about seeing a Wegman or Close rather than a movie poster? The works themselves fail to make the argument.

Public art is often touted as a “democratizing” force. This is true only if we believe the demos is a rabble of children. The paternalism is extended to the train cars themselves in the Poetry in Motion program, which swapped out a number of ad spots for poems—the most didactic and simplistic the organizers could find. How are these superior to the ads, or worth whatever ad revenue they displace? New Yorkers learned more about beauty from Dr. Zizmor.

We are left in the same old predicament: quality or massification. MTA Arts & Design appears to favor the latter, but that’s precisely the rub. If they wish to make art indistinguishable from kitsch, why have it there at all? Roy Lichtenstein’s 1994 Times Square Mural made a strong attempt to resolve this contradiction. But the sheer shittiness of the station is so comically unlike Lichtenstein’s utopian technoscape that the latter risks becoming a joke.

In lieu of addressing faulty century-old switchboards and decrepit stations, the MTA commissions art for its crumbling walls and, with ruthless efficiency, eliminates any threats to its regime of aesthetic banality.

Credit is due to Nick Cave’s nearby 2022 contribution: furry, feathery, pokey, and colorful characters dance down a tunnel connecting the Bryant Park B/D/F/M station to the Times Square S platform, where the procession’s exuberant finale is performed just past the Lichtenstein. Remarkably, the glimmer of mosaic tile in the pallid fluorescent light brings the troupe of odd commuters to life; the walls themselves seem to move. Far from being hemmed in like Close and Wegman, Cave’s centrifugal figures send ripples of their outlines through the surrounding tile.

Like the Otterness at Eighth Avenue, Cave’s piece has a distinct jouissance. The free play at work in Cave’s mosaics is starkly counterposed to riders’ workaday reality. But as it evades the total anesthetic of kitsch, it also sidesteps the more ambiguous and challenging aspects of Cave’s oeuvre that deal with Black identity and race in America. That kind of open-ended critique and potential for controversy is not welcome in subway art.

The fact that MTA Arts & Design has successfully steered clear of the culture wars by avoiding any such whiff of controversy is a credit to its management skills. The agency commissions a great deal of anodyne corporate adult day-care art, like the pieces by Wegman and those by Sarah Sze and Yoko Ono. The latter’s clouds, in particular, would be at home on the set of a horror film about a dystopian rehab facility infused with disingenuous, ominous cheer. A mosaic from Yayoi Kusama, at the newly opened Long Island Rail Road/Grand Central connector, does more of the same. The commissions need not be liked by anyone, so long as they are disliked by no one.

That subway cars with a special paint-proof or paint-blurring coating ended the graffiti era is an urban myth, if an effective one. No, it was just that ruthless efficiency of an MTA committed to cracking down. In January they whitewashed a holdout graffiti gallery at 191st Street. The last painted car left service for scrap in 1989, and all that’s left to do is wipe down a timid bit of Sharpie. The choice between anarchic graffiti, ultramanaged kitsch, and bald advertising feels false because it is. It’s all just different decor masking inhuman infrastructure. Our friend from 1916 seems to have gotten it right: it’s all ornamentation, no information, or much else, for that matter.

Allison Hewitt Ward thinks dog killer Tom Otterness’s subway sculptures are actually pretty good, but growing up, she loved William Wegman’s photo books of dogs doing people things, and she feels bad about the treatment he receives in this piece.