Montreal Granite stumps – “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” says an ancient phrase whose origin is disputed, although it seems to have been written first in Greek in the 3rd century. Even long before that reference, the notion that beauty (as well as other values such as goodness or virtue) was a subjective concept resonated in the teachings of the Sophists. Protagoras, for instance, said that “man is the measure of all things.” Of course Socrates, in the dialogue Hippias Major, contradicts and indeed destroys the Sophist view, but the idea that beauty is subjective remains very prevalent until today.
Nowhere subjectivity is more present than in the perception of any piece of public art or design, as Montrealers experienced it last year when our then Mayor Denis Coderre, as part of the city’s 375th anniversary commissioned some sculptures also to be placed in our main park. The structures were soon known as the “Mount Royal stumps.” The fact that the structures, made of granite, had a total cost of 3.45 million didn’t help in gaining any public sympathy. Most of those consulted at the time indicated a rather negative opinion of the pieces. Some, like a young woman who used to jog at the park, highlighted a practical aspect of them: “they could come in handy for pushups or stretching.” Other people thought that they might also be useful when you are having a picnic there, although, given the sloping surface of the stumps, you instead don’t put things that can fall and break on them.
A year after all the debate about the maligned pieces, they have been vindicated—sort of. “On June 9, 2018, two Quebec firms Civiliti and Julie Margot Design won a prestigious award from the Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) during its annual gala held in Minneapolis,” reads a press release from V2com, a website specialized in publishing information on design and architecture.
“Their project, Escales découvertes (Discovery Halts), was selected for an Honour Award among 353 entries submitted from numerous countries around the world. The scheme combines landscape architecture, wayfinding and poetry, adding a subtle layer to the much-celebrated Mount-Royal Park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 19th century” continues the bulletin.
So far it seems a reasonable justification of the questioned public art pieces, which concludes adding that “The conical place-markers, clustered in groups of two or three, vary in size, some as small as stepping-stones, others large enough to sit or lean on. With their bronze inscriptions, they provide clues to the more intimate characteristics of the mountain’s historical and natural features such as notable rock formations, prairies, the traces of a now-buried river or a vanished ski slope. Twenty-five of these granite cones clusters were initially planned for the project.”
Well, next time you visit Mount Royal or some of the other sites (in Outremont and Westmount) where the stumps were placed, perhaps a revision of previous preconceptions about these pieces will be in order. And maybe, the old saying, based on the Sophist subjectivist view, could have some foundation after all.