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Recruiting tool: D.M. is afraid of spray paint


I screwed my face up, pursed my lips and made one of those whimpering “no, no, no” noises when people started throwing up their arms and warning of a fast ticket to nowhere special that surely would be delivered upon Des Moines if leaders allowed a naked angel to remain on the side of a building on Locust Street. They did, and so far, no numinous train has been reported leaving the station in reverse.

OK, the uproar wasn’t that bad. And neither was artist J. Brommel’s stark-naked angel, which doesn’t look to be sans clothing from a car whizzing past. But exaggeration is one of the few amusements left for opinion columnists in a post-Jayson Blair world, so in that spirit, no, while the city hasn’t completely collapsed into complete moral decay, the walls at 1408 Locust St. seem now to be crumbling a bit, metaphorically speaking.

And speaking of metaphors, you couldn’t find a more delicious one for how hard it will be to convince hordes of young people how cool Des Moines is becoming. Claiming that city leaders strongly support public art – unless it’s “dirty” – makes us look old and prudish and possibly cut from the same bolt of cloth John Ashcroft, the former U.S. attorney general, used to drape Lady Justice’s breast.

This is not good.

Just when we’ve got young people nearly convinced that the downtown lofts and new public venues have transformed Des Moines and are putting the city on young people’s maps, they find out that we’re afraid of nudity. Which is untrue, of course. What we’re really afraid of here is spray paint. Hopefully, we can keep secret the fact that one of our City Council members was pushing for an ordinance to limit the number of cans of spray paint a person can buy at one time as a defense against graffiti. But if they find out that Des Moines is afraid not only of nudity, but especially of nudity depicted with a can of spray paint, we may as well give ourselves over the stunted, parochial types who fear looking at nude art will make them go blind.

It’s all so confusing, this schism between the clothing-required and clothing-optional art aficionados. As best I can understand it, a nude painting is a priceless work of art if it’s hung at The Louvre in Paris, but purposeless, senseless graffiti if it’s painted with an aerosol can on the wall of a building in Des Moines. Similarly, we value the harsh, angular planes of a Picasso nude, but dismiss the ingenuity in an urban art form known as graffiti and call it vandalism.

The message for young would-be Des Moines residents is that we’re clearing our throats here, trying to figure out how to deal with big-city issues now that we’ve declared ourselves one. Perhaps one day we’ll recognize graffiti as a powerful art form that reflects the lives, confusion and issues of urban youths, and learn to harness that energy in such a positive way that we embrace the artists instead of dismissing them as vandals.

Until then, keep your clothes on – figuratively, anyway.

Beth Dalbey is editorial director for Business Publications Corp. E-mail her at bethdalbey@bpcdm.com.

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