Posted on January 21, 2002


The Aestheticrats

Ugly business banned in Pittsburgh


Daniel Clark



If you've ever wondered where the term "starving artists" came from, it might help to study the actions of the Pittsburgh Art Commission. The unelected eight-member panel has quietly imposed a new regulation that has the potential to starve the city's economy, and all because of its officials' mindless antipathy toward capitalism.

Effective January 1st of this year, the commission has forbidden banners hung over city streets and sidewalks to display any corporate logos. It is their opinion that such advertisements are an aesthetic affront to the city of Pittsburgh.

Moscow on the Monongahela?

(If they are going to take this position, then the very least they can do is bring themselves to admit that pretentious pop-art icon Andy Warhol's Coke bottles and Campbell's soup cans are not artistic. But I digress.)

This decision poses a sudden and serious threat to many corporate-sponsored events in the downtown area, including the Pittsburgh Marathon, which is sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), and major concert events like the Mellon Jazz Festival and the Dollar Bank Jamboree. The already financially troubled Three Rivers Regatta, which relies heavily on corporate advertising, is almost certainly doomed if the Art Commission regulation isn't swiftly repealed.

Commission member Guy Costa, the city's Public Works Director, made a token offer of sympathy when he explained, "We're not looking to push events away. We're trying to be fair." He proceeded to illustrate the commission's concept of fairness by concluding, "Some people don't like banners. They're litter in the air."

Notice that he didn't say that some people say that banners are litter in the air; that opinion is Costa's own. Because he and his colleagues don't like to see corporate logos waving at them, they figure they're justified in shutting down business arrangements that produce revenue for all parties involved, including the city government, at the expense of nobody.

Although their decree carries the authority of the law, the commission members are not legislators accountable to the voters. They are appointees selected by Mayor Tom Murphy, who himself once explained his reticence in pursuing graffiti vandals by comparing them -- not unfavorably -- to advertisers who buy space on billboards.

Murphy seems to have created the Art Commission in his own image. One facet of the mayor's fortunately defeated downtown redevelopment plan consisted of his deciding which small businesses he thought were tacky, then pressuring them to sell their property below market value, under threat of eminent domain. The commission shows a similar lack of appreciation for free enterprise.

Under the new rule, banners can still include the names of advertisers, but only in standard print. So, if McDonald's wanted to sponsor an event, it could hang a banner that says "MCDONALD'S," but displaying the golden arches would be verboten. The commission hasn't explained how this represents an artistic improvement, but that's really none of its concern anyway, as long as the city is being paid the designated banner fee.

The Art Commission doesn't really care about the appearance of the banners, except that they'd prefer that they not appear at all. If a corporation's name, rather than its logo, appears on a banner, the "litter" that concerns Mr. Costa will pollute the air all the same. The commission's reason for regulating away the corporate logos is that its members realize why logos are created in the first place. Corporations wouldn't pay advertising consultants to develop and test-market logos if simply printing the name of their company would serve their purposes just as well.

Yoi and Double-Yoi!

If the city will not allow effective advertising at local events, sponsors will withdraw their support, and find more constructive uses for their money elsewhere. This can already be seen in the uncharacteristic absence of Pittsburgh Steeler banners hanging around town since the team has entered the playoffs. The Steelers, Pirates and Penguins are corporations, and therefore subject to the same rules imposed on the banks, fast food chains and insurance companies that the Art Commission finds so distasteful. Mayor Murphy has virtually staked his career on his belief that major league sports are of immeasurable value to a city's economy. Yet his appointees, in their Marxist fervor, have deliberately curtailed the teams' ability to advertise in the economic center of town.

When confined to the realm of art, the commission's judgment has been suspect enough, as is evident from some of the projects that have been approved in the past. On a stroll through downtown Pittsburgh, one can expect to encounter such artistic masterpieces as the Enormous Orange Paperclip, the Scattered Disembodied Eyeballs, and the Great Caged Heap 'O Rubble. (These aren't the works' actual titles, but can the real ones possibly be any better?) When city officials are willing to withstand such monumental eyesores as those, their concern over the aesthetic impact of a corporate logo on a temporary banner rings phony ... which it is.

The commission betrays its political motive in the "over-the-street banners" section of its official banner policy, where it says, "Over-the-street banners are appropriate for the promotion of cultural and civic events of general public interest. Over-the-street banners shall be permitted only in commercially zoned areas. These banners shall not be used for political, commercial or profit-making purposes. To that end, these banners may not display corporate logos or similar endorsements."

Just who do they expect to put on "cultural and civic events of general public interest" like the marathon and the regatta, if not for "profit-making purposes?" The Salvation Army? Commercial over-the-street banners have been used in Pittsburgh for years. If the Art Commission is now declaring them inappropriate, there ought to be some explanation as to why. Instead, the directive simply rules out their use, as if their offensiveness should be obvious to everyone.

The banner policy later places the same restrictions on over-the-sidewalk banners: that they must not be used for profit-making purposes, and that they can only be permitted in commercially zoned areas. This second provision has led City Councilman Bob O'Connor, who challenged Murphy in last year's mayoral primary, to protest that the new regulation would harm neighborhood events like carnivals and church fish fries, by taking away their most visible means of advertisement.

Karl Marx, art critic

O'Connor has stated his intention to introduce legislation that would repeal the newly imposed restrictions. It's a good thing he's taking the matter into his own hands, because any rational appeal to the Art Commission would surely be fruitless. The commission cannot even be forthright about the reason for its actions, because that would reveal just how far it has overstepped the authority it shouldn't even have in the first place. If the commissioners' admitted intent were to suppress economic activity, anybody would realize that it wasn't their business, so instead they just say that the advertisements don't look nice.

The new banner regulation is only a matter of aesthetics insofar as the regulators' senses are offended by capitalism. The Marxist-Leninists at the Pittsburgh Art Commission have declared a turf war on the corporate poachers who have encroached upon government property. They are determined to fight what they perceive as exploitation by big business profiteers, even at the expense of turning their city into an economic ghost town.

Not that this would necessarily be an unintended consequence. It just might be that they think depressing the economy would be a wonderful idea. You know the way artists are about their suffering. But to revise an old adage, company does not love misery. If the people at the Art Commission want suffering, let them get together and sever a few ears for old time's sake, and leave the rest of us alone.


***Note: On January 22, 2002, the Pittsburgh City Council voted to rescind the Art Commission's banner policy, by a vote of 6-1, with one abstention.



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