the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

New York’s Subways as (Forum for) Artvertising

Posted by gninja on August 4, 2007

I’m so sorry for the title of this post.  I can’t help myself.


(The Shuttle train from Grand Central to Times Square, recently done up by the Westin Hotel.)

At the New York Transit Museum right now  is an exhibition on “Squire Vickers and the Subway’s Modern Age“.  I’ve not yet been to the exhibition, but it’s nevertheless a good opportunity to talk about art and the subways again— especially since husband recommended we take the S to Times Square yesterday to see its new duds.  Very, very cool.


Not exactly the sort of work Vickers might have commissioned, or done himself:


Throughout the 103-year history of NYC’s subway system, though, there’s been a constant effort to beautify what gets millions of us from point A to B.  Whether its come from subway designers and architects themselves, like Vickers, or from street artists, as in the ’70s and ’80s, or from advertisers, as in this case, people don’t seem to want to have to stare at blankness for their commutes.  The embellishment certainly helps us avert our eyes from others, an unlimited source of tension on these streets.

Nevertheless, though, I still felt bad about taking so well to the Westin’s ad campaign.  I thoroughly enjoyed riding in a subway carriage all dressed up as an Alpine Scene, but knowing that it was just another tactic to sell me something made me feel bad about it.  And yet, it’s not that far from Rudolf Stingel’s ‘Plan B‘, an installation of carpeting in Grand Central’s main terminal, in 2004:


Both the ad campaign and Stingel’s art have the same effect of alienating the daily commute from its natural character, either through domesticating it (imagine yourself walking through Grand Central with carpeted floors– just the absence of clicking heels alone would be eerie) or through likening it to a form of tourism or vacationing.

And yet, and yet the whole thing is changed when I know one of those installations’ primary purpose is to sell me something.

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