It was May 22, 2010. Pat and I were spending the weekend in Munich, which is Germany’s third city after Berlin and Hamburg. Germans call the city “Munchen”, since it was founded by Benedictine monks and the word for monk in Old German was “monche”. Hence, the inhabitants of Munich are known as Munchner. On the day of our visit, the Munchner were in a state of high excitement. Many of them, dressed in red and white, were noisily roaming the city and consuming many of the splendid beers which are brewed here. After all, Munich is the home of Oktoberfest. The Munchner were so excited because, in the season just ending, the local soccer team (FC Bayern Munich) had not only established itself as easily the best team in Germany. It had also won its way to the final of the European Champions Cup and was, that very evening in the neutral venue of Madrid, facing Italian opposition in order to determine which city has the best soccer team in the whole world. Literally tens of thousands of the Munchner had traveled to Spain to watch the game.
Meanwhile another 70,000 Munchner had gathered in The Allianz Arena to watch the match on giant TV screens. This beautiful Arena, designed to resemble by day a shiny white air cushion, changes color when illuminated at night and is where FC Bayern Munich plays its home fixtures. Meanwhile, many more Munchner still needed somewhere to see the game. Pat and I visited a large beer garden, which was showing the game live on TV. That seemed a good idea when we planned it, but hundreds of the Munchner had the same idea. The place was so packed that we could not even see the screen. That situation was replicated at beer gardens all over Munich. Defeated, we headed for the little sports bar opposite our hotel, only to find it overflowing with Munchner. Those who could not squeeze into the bar were standing six deep on the sidewalk, watching the game through the windows. We finally saw the game on the TV alone in our hotel bedroom. Yet Pat and I were not alone in defeat. FC Bayern Munich lost to the Italians by two goals to nil.
The events of that evening demonstrate the great pride which the Munchner take in their city. They have achieved so much since my last visit here in 1961, when damage from World War Two was still evident. Munich had been a prime target for allied bombing raids. Today, there is no sign of that damage. Restoration of the city is complete. With typical Munchner enthusiasm and ingenuity, they made a huge heap of all the rubble in what is now Olympic Park, site of the 1972 Olympic Games. Then they covered the debris with earth. Now it lies buries beneath a pleasant green hill, rising to a height of nearly two hundred feet. That makes the following story hard to believe.
When touring the sights in Munich, we noticed in Leopoldstrasse a gigantic sculpture known as The Walking Man. It was grotesque and, what is worse, it visually conflicted with gracious buildings nearby. Over fifty feet high, the sculpture has a steel inner structure and a fiberglass outer shell. It was made in California in 1995 and shipped over to Munich in sections. It was the work of the American sculptor, Jonathan Borofsky.
How could the proud Munchner have let their fine city be desecrated thus? But Pat and I have been through this before. What a sense of déjà vu we felt that day in Munich! From 2001 to 2005, our home was in Baltimore, Maryland about two hundred yards from its main railway station. Penn Station, Baltimore, was built in 1911 in a neo-classical architectural style. Its elegant façade has an abundance of columns recalling ancient Greece. In 2004, a small group of Baltimore “art enthusiasts” paid Borofsky $750,000 for his sculpture called “Male/Female” and persuaded the city to erect it in front of Penn Station. Male/Female has much in common with The Walking Man. It is over fifty feet in height. It is exceedingly ugly. It conflicts horribly with the architecture of the nearby building. Pat and I could not leave our Baltimore home without passing Male/Female every day and we hated it. Pity the poor Munchner, who are now suffering similarly. In a free society, wealthy patrons of the arts are entitled to spend their money on whatever they choose. One can only be grateful that Borofsky’s $750,000 did not come out of the Baltimore taxpayers’ pockets. Am I a philistine to believe that a traditional statue of a personality from Baltimore’s long and rich history would have been more appropriate for that prime location? Am I a philistine to believe that Baltimore, with its record levels of drugs and murder and with its many acres of boarded up housing, could have used that $750,000 so much more usefully – if only it had been donated to them? If so, I am thankful to be a philistine with the opportunity to condemn artistic garbage, when I see it. Three cheers for the internet!
Criticism of Borofsky’s work in Baltimore, Munich and several other cities is widespread. He responds by telling us, in an interview reported in The Carnegie Mellon Magazine, that “if you can’t write something nice, don’t write anything at all.” Let us instead hope that critics throughout the world continue to publish their increasingly hostile reviews of this environmental vandalism posing as art. Perhaps the next step could be a citizen’s referendum on whether such “sculptures” should be removed from their present locations? Borofsky’s freedom to practice his art must be balanced against my freedom, and the freedom of millions like me, to avoid the forced viewing of gigantic ugly statues in public places.