Underground art

Reviewing the MBTA’s subterranean aesthetic
By MIKE MILIARD  |  April 30, 2008

THE SILVER LINE: might be considered the runt of Boston’s public-transportation litter, but its art — including the clean, modern designs at Courthouse station (seen above) — represents some of the T’s best.

Smells like T spirit!
Boston’s mass-transit system dates back to 1631, when sailboats ferried passengers from Chelsea to Charlestown. In the subsequent 377 years, service has become a teeny bit faster — but at a price that has put the MBTA in debt to a tune of more than $8 billion. With transportation issues getting renewed scrutiny under the Patrick administration, Phoenix staffers fanned out to kick the T’s tires.

• The trolley Svengali: Why Dan Grabauskas might actually fix the T — if he can keep his job. By Adam Reilly.
• Trouble 'round the bend? MBTA workers have been without a contract for two years. Arbitration will settle the matter soon, but could stir an angry hornets’ nest for 2010. By David S. Bernstein
• Seven habits of highly effective T-riders: Keep your hands on the pole and not on your neighbor’s ass, bucko. By Sharon Steel.
• The T and the Tube: London’s Underground is seething with danger. Boston’s T has cuckoo juice. By James Parker.
A sinking feeling: Leaky MBTA tunnels have been seeping Boston’s groundwater for years. Can a new plan prevent potential catastrophe? By David S. Bernstein
• State of hock: If the MBTA wasn't in debt, these items would be at the top of its new wish list. By Jason Notte.
• The Phoenix editorial: Is the MBTA on track?

Next time a smirking subway conductor cackles wickedly while closing the folding doors in your face, don’t get angry. Take a deep breath. Look around. And drink in the calming beauty of the art that surrounds you. Say what you will about the powers that be at the MBTA, but at least they’re trying, dammit. Trying to palliate your grubby, soul-crushing commute with the airy enlightenment of aesthetic self-expression. Since the first bristles were swept across the craggy ceilings of Lascaux, man has aspired to elevate his better nature via the creation of visual art. And so the MBTA seeks to enliven its dark and musty tunnels with dozens of sculptures, installations, mosaics, and wall hangings — objets d’art, it is hoped, that will increase the enjoyment, however slightly, of a journey that’s often less than pleasant.

Some of it is conceptually and aesthetically worthwhile. Some of it is execrably bad. Some of it is laughably out of date. And some of it is entirely unintentional.

As it happens, KENMORE Station has a little bit of the first three. “Do not confuse with the beautiful what other periods called the beautiful,” once wrote French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix. “Go further: be bold enough in almost every case to say that what was the beautiful thirty or forty years ago is now the ugly.” He’s got a point. Just look at the high-contrast enameled eyesores that pass for art in the bowels of Kenmore Station. They may have been trendy when unveiled in the late ’60s/early ’70s, but it’s doubtful they were considered especially beautiful, even then.

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