Insipid, or Inspired?

I have recently encountered the word “insipid” used regarding art on two separate occasions – each within a day of one another.

Insipid is not a word I use frequently.  Perhaps it just doesn’t jibe with my personal rhythm, or perhaps I merely avoid referring to something or someone as insipid.

For those just joining us, here is what has to say about the word:



1. without distinctive, interesting, or stimulating qualities; vapid: an insipid personality. 

2. without sufficient taste to be pleasing, as food or drink; bland: a rather insipid soup. 

—Synonyms 1, 2. flat, dull, uninteresting. 2. tasteless, bland. Unabridged (v 1.1)

Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.

“insipid.” Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 01 Feb. 2007. <>

Essentially, in each case critics used the word insipid to label certain artistic works as “uninspiring.”

The first encounter came via Warren Rice, who we interviewed last week at Brainripples.  As some of you may know, the royal family visited Philadelphia last weekend, and included a visit to one of Philadelphia’s many murals as a part of their trip.

Warren, as you may recall, is one of the many contributing artists who has helped to create murals in Philadelphia.  At his site, you can see pictures of an Anti-Smoking mural he worked on in the neighborhood of Temple University.

Prompted by the royal visit, writer Joseph P. Blake published the article, “Murals: Insipid, not inspiring,” in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In the article, Blake states that this particular work of the Anti-Smoking mural:

“had no impact on me other than to say, “Hmmm. That’s interesting.”

For me, that meant it was, unfortunately, like so many other murals in economically compromised neighborhoods: It was a snapshot of a moment, thought, or perception unconnected to anything in the neighborhood or anyone living there.”

Warren Rice responds to Blake with,

“[T]his was a true community effort from beginning to end. John [Lewis] had photographed all the models posed in the mural directly from the neighborhood. They all participated in their roles. Why? Because this is a subject that the community voted on and chose themselves to be there!”

Blake also states in response to the anti-smoking mural that,

“There was no greater “thing” being hinted at, and certainly no reason to be moved in any way, which is what I think any good public art usually does.”

I agree that good public art can and often does move, inspire, and challenge the viewers – but there is more to it than that.  In my home town of Seattle, public art comes in many unique and varied forms.  Among my favorites are “Poetry on the Buses,” and the “Bus Shelter Mural” projects, both part of the King County Metro Transit department.

Often times public art works do move me deeply.  But perhaps more important than that, they have created a sense of place for me, and undoubtedly countless other Seattleites.  When I imagine Seattle, I see those colorful bus shelters filled with commuters in that beautiful, cold Seattle rain.  I would wager a guess that the murals of Philadelphia provide a similar sense of place for its residents, be it a conscious process or not.

The second instance I recently encountered using the word insipid to describe art was at the Ideas Man blog, where GGW recently discussed the presence of mechanical, uninspired (and uninspiring) writing.  GGW focused primarily on writing found online, in news sources, and at blogs.

GGW makes an effective case against the lack of inspiration in some written forms, while advocating style, soul, and meaning.  I can’t say I disagree with GGW on these latter points, all of which are valuable to me as an artist; but style is not the only quality of value to be found in art.

“Artistic value” is a highly subjective attribute.  What some of us find to be the triumph of a particular artistic genre, others of us might find unfit to print on toilet paper – it’s all a matter of opinions (and well, you know what they say about opinions… right?)

Apart from style and inspiration, artistic work can also be evaluated in terms of its clarity, delivery, and effectiveness.  An online news piece and a blog entry both must deliver a small amount of information in a short space, and say it clearly enough to be understood with a single reading.

A mural, or other public piece, must convey a message, last a lifetime, and offer some artistic value of one kind or another.  I believe that it is important for a community to possess a balance of works between those that make us scratch our heads in consternation, and those that make us pause in recognition.

What do you think is/are the most important purpose(s) of public art – visual, written, kinetic, and otherwise?

How do you feel about art in your community, city, or country?  How do you respond to art that you encounter in cities, buildings, airports, and bus stations?

Do you find your community’s art to be insipid, or inspiring?  How do you work against the mundane in your art, and strive for excellence and purpose?


6 Responses to Insipid, or Inspired?

  1. Bernita says:

    We have a few murals, historical representations, turn of the century subjects.
    Rather medieval in their static execution.
    I find them bland.

  2. Anita Marie says:

    My son has done some of those murals around Seattle ( some were planned…others were ‘donated’ 😉 and what I learned is that these aren’t just pictures…they’re stories without words, each subject, each color, the placement of images serves a purpose.

    So the next time you see one- I’d suggest you listen with your eyes

    Anita Marie

  3. JLB says:

    Bernita, I’ve definitely encountered art that didn’t move me – a book I’m currently reading is case in point. What I’ve used to keep my trudging through it to the finish, is a single character which I absolutely love. I suppose some works are more likely to grow on me over time.

    Anita Marie, I love your description about the stories the images tell. Well said.

  4. Trailhead says:

    Did Blake and I look at the same mural? Perhaps we did not — I viewed the photograph, he viewed the real deal. But I felt my lungs go tight watching the man exhaling the smoke — and watch him you must. The image holds your eyeballs hostage.

    Eh, maybe I’m a mere Philistine, but I didn’t get the critique. (And I’ll admit I found an insufferably elitist tone to it as well. In art criticism no less. Imagine that.)

  5. JLB says:

    Trailhead, I’m glad you had time to see the image and read the article – I had the same reaction as you did. True, I haven’t seen this mural on the street yet, but the painting DOES have a lot to say – about family, about traditions, about choices, about legacies – and so much more. The longer I look at it, the more I see.

    True, it may not make me feel like dancing a waltz when I see it, but that’s not its intended purpose. I agree with your analysis of Blake’s tone in his article. Did anyone else notice that while he makes claims about the inappropriateness of this mural in its neighborhood on the basis that it has nothing to do with the people there, he does not mention whether he himself is from this neighborhood, nor does he include any first-hand public opinion whatsoever?

  6. Trailhead says:

    I noticed that too.

    That feeling of community and defiance comes through loud and clear and is an inspiration to view. And that, in essence, is what troubles me about these feel-good murals in areas under stress from poverty, violence, and now, gentrification.

    Feel-good? Is he serious?

    Every now and then I’m reminded forcefully that there’s nothing inherently meaningful about criticism or critics. Criticism is just as self-limiting an endeavor as anything else, and perhaps worse. That sentiment has been expressed a million times before, of course, and better. But it’s one of those simple truths that tend to slip away until something displays it so nakedly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: