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With public art, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s rejected

A controversy has raged among the intelligentsia of Paris this winter about an unlikely subject: not race or gender, for once, but taste. The cultural elite got really riled up in January when it learned that the city of Paris had decided to accept a gift, a large piece of sculpture from the postmodernist American artist Jeff Koons. Koons is known for large-scaled reproductions of banal objects. His gift is a memorial for the victims of the 2015 Bataclan massacre.

Koons's sculpture, which will be produced in a German factory, is of a large human hand holding a bunch of giant plastic multicoloured tulips. It is called Bouquet of Tulips. It is to be 12 metres high. The tulips look very obviously fake, reflecting Koons's preoccupation with the mass-produced and the artificial.

When the project was announced, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, said that it would "bear witness to the irrevocable attachment between our capital and the United States." In this, it echoes the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to the United States, and Bouquet of Tulips even echoes the hand that grasps Liberty's torch.

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On hearing that the city was considering placing this bright and brash sculpture in a very prominent place – outside the Palais de Tokyo art museum, in a wealthy district, not close to the site of the massacre it purports to commemorate – a group of influential cultural figures, including filmmakers, writers and a former culture minister, signed an open letter to the newspaper Liberation denouncing the project and demanding it be abandoned. The artists and writers say Koons's work is "industrial, spectacular and speculative art" (the "speculative" here referring, I think, to the idea of art as financial investment) and that "such strong visibility and recognition would amount to advertising or product placement."

They also point out that it's not really a gift, or that, if it is, it is an expensive one: Koons is only giving the "conception" of the piece, and his name. Private investors have funded its construction. But the proposed site must be reinforced to support a 35-tonne object and the bill for this is expected to be in the millions of euros, to be footed by the city. It will then have to be maintained forever.

The letter denounces Koons as the darling of "multinationals of hyperluxury." He represents, to these Parisian intellectuals, the crassness of the United States itself – at a time when the U.S. and its President are far from popular around the world. It's an awkward time for a bold proclamation of Franco-American friendship. Accepting this artwork, to the furious French, would be to open the doors of the city to a giant Trojan horse of foreign values. And it would be a free ad for the master of hype, Jeff Koons.

French cultural figures are very good at this sort of passionate open letter defending the capital's cultural integrity. They wrote a very similar one about a very ugly structure about to be erected around 130 years ago. The city had proposed allowing an engineer to build a giant metal tower composed of nothing but beams and rivets, as a display of new structural techniques, on a parade ground next to Napoleon's veterans' hospital on the left bank. This bristling and unadorned tower, the very essence of industrialism, was to soar 81 storeys into the air. The 300 signatories to the letter included the writer Maupassant, the painter Bouguereau and the composer Massenet, and they derided the proposed tower as "useless and monstrous … a gigantic black smokestack."

The tasteless tower, designed by Gustave Eiffel, was built anyway and now pretty much represents the city itself.

The Pompidou Centre, the museum built to look like a huge functioning machine, a network of pipes and tubes – perhaps some form of plumbing – in the market area of the right bank in 1977, was similarly loathed by just about everyone in its planning stage and even for years after its construction. The Figaro called it a monster. It too became one of the most popular museums in Paris and in the world, and is regarded as a gem of the particular brief-lived moment of gaudy high-tech architecture.

It looks at this point as if the Koons sculpture has so much opposition it probably won't go ahead. I also think it is god-awful and plumb-ugly. And I think Koons is a clever self-promoter. But these things always grow on you. Kitsch in particular.

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Last summer, a mini-fracas brewed about an expensive piece of public art that came to Toronto for Canada Day – a house-sized yellow rubber duck that docked in the harbour. Despite a lot of online mockery, the crowds that showed up to see it were intense. It turned the whole lake into a bathtub and it was a lot of fun.

My home town, Halifax, has the honour of having a piece of public sculpture so repulsive it regularly shows up on "Ugliest Public Art Worldwide" lists. It is on the campus of Dalhousie University. Marine Venus by Robert Hedrick was installed in 1969. It is a large piece of white marble – two smooth lobes, with a shaft rising from them, culminating in another bulb that is slit open and vomiting some kind of sticky mass. It is unmistakeably phallic. It evokes bodily fluids and rupture, both orgasm and injury. It is truly disgusting. I walked past it every day of my life until I left home and I stopped seeing it, just like everyone else who lives and works there. I would be terribly sad if it were to be removed.

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