Another example of “Pretentious City Pretend Art” is Claes Oldenburg’s Torn Notebook currently found marring the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Claes Oldenburg created some magnificent and provocative pieces of art over his career but Torn Notebook is not one of them. I have felt that way from the moment the monstrosity was first described in the local Lincoln newspaper many years ago.

Here’s why: The good people of Nebraska have an identity crises.

They love their Cornhusker football team because it gives them national definition beyond buffalo and alfalfa. Being known in the nation as a “football school” does not bother many Nebraskans. Many believe “Football U” is a compliment and not a snotty mocking. Nebraskans crave validation even if it is negative.

Nebraskans silently shudder at the idea of being “fly over” folk for the “real people” who live on the East and West Coasts.

Nebraskans live to be liked. They want to fit in and not cause trouble. The state was settled in 1867 by German immigrants and Republican Union soldiers from the Civil War. Nebraska is humid and flat. In the Otoe Indian language “Nebraska” means “Flatwater” and that isn’t a compliment though most Nebraskans believe that name is a good thing and a festival is even named after the Otoe moniker.

When the University of Nebraska-Lincoln hired Claes Oldenburg to design a giant piece of art for the campus — so the story goes — Claes was trying to come up with design ideas but could think of nothing effective. Frustrated and angry that the idea of Nebraska was uninspiring to him as an artist, Claes ripped and then crumpled up his notebook and tossed is back over his shoulder.

Then, slowly he turned, and saw the ripped and crumpled notebook on the floor in the corner and — shazam! — he decided to make his piece of art that torn notebook in a super size.

The people of Nebraska love that story and they love the huge Torn Notebook impaled on their campus. I served the first 23 years of my life in Nebraska and as an undergraduate graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln I have done my time there and it is safe for me to call out Torn Notebook as another Emperor Without Clothes.

Having a giant monument to an artist’s tantrum in the form of Torn Notebook stabbing into the ground on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus is not an honor for the people of Nebraska.

It is an insult.

Claes Oldenburg was shat out of ideas and instead of being inspired to grind on to come up with an appropriate and interesting concept for the beautiful land grant prairie campus he instead took the Pretentious City Pretend Art route and reached into the toilet and withdrew his steaming, torn, notebook “inspiration” and presented it to the good people of Nebraska on a silver platter as a piece of “art” when it really was a stinky piece of something else.

The fact that Nebraskans admire their Torn Notebook even though it was born of disdain and frustration for them goes to the heart of what it means to be ignored and put-upon by the rest of the United States.

The great State of Nebraska suffers from Battered State Syndrome and the proof is in their admiration of and feeling of honor for a giant slap in the face posing as Claes Oldenburg”s Torn Notebook.

16 Comments

    1. I don’t need to check history. I lived through the creation and unveiling of that ridiculous piece of frustrated “art.” History can be redacted. Artists revise meaning and contemplation. Writing is about preserving the truth and the intention of what was witnessed and experienced and noted.

      If you choose to continue to comment, you need to use a verifiable name and email address. We don’t cotton to anonymous cowards in our comments stream.

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  1. http://newsroom.unl.edu/releases/2007/04/26/Iconic+'Torn+Notebook'+sculpture+to+undergo+conservation
    Sited in a transitional area from downtown Lincoln to the campus, the dramatic, playful sculpture includes three components: a large notebook held by a spiral and two nearby torn pages, which appear to be blowing in the wind. The $70,000 conservation project will take four to six weeks to complete and will include repainting the entire sculpture as well as repairing a damaged section of the notebook spiral. Glasson Sculpture Works of New York will complete the conservation treatment.

    “Dramatic”? “Playful”?
    You know what I think when I see projects such as this in any locale?
    “Look at the monumental waste of money”. That’s what I think.
    Aesthetics have their place, but it seems they always cost much more than they are worth.

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