Of the many distractions that have kept me from writing here, one was an unsuccessful attempt to land a job running exhibitions for a museum that draws about 150,000 visitors a year. It wasn’t a good fit for them or for me—our ideas about what might be said to those 150,000 people were just too far apart. But I had relished the possibility of communicating so directly with so many people.
For wanting to satisfy that urge, I can blame my own personality. (When a college friend asked me if I’d rather be rich or famous, I chose fame. But then I learned in young adulthood that with fame came death threats. So, no thank you, I don’t really want to be famous. I just want to be influential in a field that I care about deeply.)
But, for caring about scale, I can also blame Otto Piene.
I heard Otto speak on numerous occasions about his Olympic Rainbow, a helium-filled sculpture 2400 feet in length that was deployed at the closing ceremony of the 1972 Munich Olympics—the same Olympics in which eleven Israeli team members were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Otto always talked about the struggle toward a decision made by Olympics officials to continue the Games after the attack and, therefore, to continue with the closing ceremony.
The Olympic Rainbow had been tested with the help of the German army, no less, and it flew flawlessly at the ceremony. As you’ll see in Vin Grabill’s video*, the project was huge. Its scale was important to Otto.
Until very recently, though, I had thought that by “scale,” Otto had meant simply the massive physical size of the thing. It took me until just a few months ago to realize** that he had also meant something more. Otto had noticed, and was proud of, the audience of millions who saw the Olympic Rainbow in person and on TV. He believed that each of them might have been affected by the simple (or maybe not so simple) ideas of peace and togetherness that the work carried.
As my home city hems and haws over whether we really want an Olympics here in 2024, I am learning—again—that reaching many, many, many people with art really does matter. The great choreographer Pina Bausch said, "Dance, dance, or we are lost." Likewise: make art, show art, to as many people as possible.
* Grabill’s video documents several of Otto’s Sky Art events, including fabulous footage of the testing of the Olympic Rainbow and, in another event, of the incomparable, flying Charlotte Moorman. Northwestern University’s Block Museum will open an exhibition of Charlotte’s work in 2016.
** This realization came on seeing a recorded interview of Piene with Ute Meta Bauer, now the Founding Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore. MIT’s link to the interview is inactive. I’ll add it if it comes back.