Mostly They’re Having Lunch

by Michael O'Malley

last edited on Wed. October 8 2014

There is at least one piece of art at the Smart Museum that you can sit on: Scott Burton's Bench and Table. It was given to the Museum through the Smart Family Foundation and is located in the sculpture garden, which is named for Abe and Vera Elden, also members of the Smart family.

Burton believed public art should be of use to its audience--to the public. He was not concerned with whether or not that audience recognized an object as art. “You have to accommodate public use...People aren’t in urban spaces to have an art experience. Mostly they’re having lunch.” In the Smart’s sculpture garden, people are indeed mostly having lunch (at least when the weather is above 0 degrees), but they’re also often looking for an art experience.

These proposed viewer expectations underscore a major theme at play in Bench and Table: the tension produced by unexpected, incongruous, and sometimes contradictory relationships. It’s art, but it’s functional; that is, it’s “Bench and Table, designed 1988, realized 1991, polished carved granite, Scott Burton (American 1939-1989)” but it’s also a bench and a table.

Burton used height ratios traditional for the relationship between a chair and a table, but he did not include a table-top ledge extending toward the bench. If you sit on the bench, you’re forced to lean-in towards the table in order for the work to function.

Further, the two pieces that form Bench and Table seem to fit perfectly into each other; the cylindrical curve of the table table appears to align perfectly with the rounded contours of the bench. This relationship creates a tension in the immediate area between the bench and the table, a tension that is reinforced (or perhaps upset) when someone enters that space and sits down. Also adding to this tension is this question: is it okay to sit on art?

Despite the tension, the space invites you to enter. And, it is appropriate not only to enter, but to sit, to lean-in, to place your coffee or laptop or elbows on the table and to have lunch there.