Unpacking the comically insulting Bucky on Parade program.
It seems harmless enough: Decorate a bunch of large Bucky Badger sculptures, put them up around town for people to gawk at and take selfies with. The whole thing practically cries out to be ignored, and you wouldn’t want to have some pretentious pearl-clutching reaction to it and turn into a humorless spoilsport complaining about what an eyesore these things are. There are bigger fish to fry, as “Friday Night Fish Fry Bucky,” on display at the Edgewater, would surely agree. People in Madison spend too much time arguing about silly things as it is. Perhaps in the long run the 85 artist-decorated Bucky sculptures unveiled around town this week will even earn the same grudging affection Madisonians have developed for the grotesquely lumpy goblin phallus known as “Nail’s Tales.” Just let people enjoy their hokey public-art exercise.
What’s so galling about the Bucky on Parade program is not that it’s lowbrow (sorry, “Enlightened Bucky”). It’s that so much effort, so much coordination, so much philanthropic support, and a fair bit of unquestioning media attention has been lavished on such a program in a city that still has so much work to do when it comes to supporting the arts. In Madison, a city that touts its arts and culture offerings as a benefit to residents and visitors alike, we’re still struggling to figure out what role we want public art to play. We rarely have serious, substantive conversations about how local public-art funds are spent. Getting people and institutions together to parse out these issues is difficult, yet dozens of businesses and foundations with enough resources to know better joined forces to sponsor this exercise in garish provincialism. (The part where the Buckys were all still in black plastic wrap and people were Instagramming them was cool, though.)
Taken as a whole, the Bucky on Parade campaign is not just harmless but aggressively innocuous. Aside from a couple nods to cancer and veterans’ issues—both important matters, but about which there is already broad consensus—these sculptures generally don’t ask people to think about much of anything. They just ask us to engage in surface-level, boosterish celebration of things ranging from Madison’s skyline to the biotech industry to um, the glories of biking in Fitchburg. Few of these works really confront us with the challenges the state or city faces; instead, they offer a fresh helping of every fluffy little Madison cliche ever. There is one acknowledgement of Latinx Madisonians, but as a whole we’re left with the standard narrative of Wisconsin, Madison, and UW-Madison as an uncomplicated and not very diverse landscape in love with its German heritage and Frank Lloyd Wright and the marching band jet pack guy. Why not keep it short and just brain passerby with a Terrace chair?
It is so painfully obvious that Bucky on Parade is aimed at people who don’t live in Madison but come in for sporting events and things like Taste of Madison. If you want the one-dimensional, no-effort version of this city, this is for you. The message seems to be that we really want people to come here without taking the time or making the effort to understand the rich and complex city that we are, a place that can’t neatly be summed up by a macho rage-faced rendition of the state animal. On some level the whole thing is kind of insulting to tourists and visitors as well as to locals. Out-of-towners do have an appreciation for more than just the biggest, dumbest, shiniest objects. Just as Madisonians don’t make the occasional trip to Milwaukee just to see the Fonzie sculpture, on account of Milwaukee has so much more to offer, we can hold out hope that people who visit here won’t see Bucky on Parade sculptures as a primary destination. Most of us here are wise enough to take our out-of-town visitors to Olbrich Gardens and/or the Arboretum, in order to make them relaxed and docile.
And next to all that Madison has to boast about on the art front—from two very good art museums with free admission downtown (including the Chazen Museum of Art, now also home of “Bucky come se Picasso”) to a scrappy community drive to preserve the work of eccentric east-side artist Sid Boyum to the subtler works of public art that dot our parks and streets to a robust artist-in-residence program at the Madison Public Library to newer events like the Makeshift Festival—Bucky on Parade is a gaudy disservice. Public art can be joyous and accessible without pandering to exhausted college-sports cliches.
Bucky on Parade also feels less like a blank slate for art than a blank slate for corporate messaging. Madison Festivals Inc. sponsored a Taste of Madison-themed Bucky whose color scheme does indeed evoke how your stomach feels after attending Taste of Madison, MG&E sponsored an energy-themed one, Homburg Companies sponsored one of several construction-themed entries, the World Dairy Expo sponsored a cow one, and so on. Shout out to the downtown Best Western for stepping out of its comfort zone by supporting the Body Worlds-esque treat that is “Visible Bucky,” probably the last thing the hotel wants its visitors to envision when they’re turning in at night.
I don’t wish to pick on the individual artists behind the Buckys, who I’m sure mean well and tried to contribute in a spirit of fun and civic involvement. I hope they enjoyed the work and found it a worthwhile opportunity—our city provides few enough of those. There are artists involved whose work I’ve enjoyed in other contexts. It’s the overall sense of nutty bombardment in public spaces—the “on parade” part, if you will—that feels like the problem. There is so much in Madison that could benefit from the kind of unified heave that Bucky on Parade represents. In other words, it takes a village to deploy dozens of six-foot-tall Buckys, and perhaps said village’s resources could be better used.
If you’re visiting Madison this summer, please know that there is a lot here that is worthy of your attention and support—stuff that’s fun but also might make you ask some questions and deepen your relationship with yourself and the world around you. Chances are that’s what’s drawing you here in the first place. Please try to forgive us our immense capacity for embarrassing ourselves.