The Most Dismal Art in the Subway–NYC


I am walking through one of those endless underground corridors at the Times Square subway station when I happen to look at the ceiling. A sign is bolted to the I-beam overhead.

“Why Bother?”

I’m taken aback. Is this a secret message? Maybe from some disgruntled transit worker? Who is this sign talking to? And should we bother? Bother with what? And whyever not?

In that state of botherment, I encounter more signs all of them similarly cryptic and depressing. They cast a pall over the already dank corridor. Taken together, they say:

So Tired.
If Late,
Get Fired.
Why Bother?
Why the Pain?
Just Go Home
Do It Again

Wow. What a kick in the pants for all those schmucks scurrying under them to Dilbertville every morning. Kind of makes you want to beat your head against those cinder block walls.

The final sign completely baffled me:

What is this? An abstract of a piano? A study of a square zebra?

No. It’s the rumpled bed to which the hapless commuter is invited to return, because, you know, why bother?

Some googling later, I discover that this isn’t sabotage or graffiti. This is art, folks. This is poetry. (“Charmingly depressing,” according to one art blogger.) This work was commissioned and installed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

It’s titled “A Commuter’s Lament” and was done by Norman Colp, who must be a real ray of sunshine, that guy. The MTA commissioned it during a period when the subway was getting all gussied up with original art–most of it impressive and enjoyable.

Like this:

Mr. Colp’s opus was supposed to be temporary, but it’s been up since 1991, and he died in  2007.  End of story, right?

You’d think so. But this is New York, so…

Enter a couple bright-eyed students last November aflame with zeal to make the world (or this corridor of it) a better place. Motivated by the Rabbinic concept of tikkun olam, which means “repairing the world,” they papered over Mr. Colp’s dour verse, tweaking here, brightening there. For example:

the edited poem of Mr. Colp. (Formerly, "why the pain?")

Of course, the authorities and art purists were affronted. Art has been tampered with (gasp!), and they lost no time returning it to its original dreary state. Mr. Colp’s widow weighed in on the brouhaha in a predictably upbeat manner, “Why be optimistic in these times? Be realistic–life sucks. You get through it the best you can.”

So much for the wisdom of age.

Actually, the NYC subways are chockablock with great art. I’ve stumbled across some of it, but had no idea how extensive and lovely it is. Here’s a guide that documents it all, including “A Commuter’s Lament.”

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8 Responses to The Most Dismal Art in the Subway–NYC

  1. Gray 27 April, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

    That’s very interesting, I would never have known about this if you hadn’t written about it. Yeah, that’s pretty bleak, I’ve got to say. If I were a commuter having to go through that subway every day, I think I’d rather read something a bit more uplifting, personally. Something to give me hope. I wonder how many people see that “art” every day and consider throwing themselves in front of trains? I don’t have a problem with bleak poetry per se, but to put it there, where it can depress everyone who’s living the very life he describes is harsh. That’s like putting up a dark poem in a nursing home about how much it sucks to get old and die.

  2. Marcia Davis 18 April, 2012 at 9:14 pm #

    I kind of like Colp’s existential art. It’s the type of thing, if you read it day after day, that might get you thinking about what the heck you’re doing riding a commuter train every day for some mundane job. It might actually get people to think about a better way to use their talents and get out of the rut.

    • Kate Convissor 19 April, 2012 at 7:29 pm #

      That is a very positive way to look at it, and obviously an attitude that completely eluded me.

      Unfortunately, those of us who go to the half-empty glass first, would just go back to bed in defeat.

      I’m constantly reminded that there’s another way to look at things. Voila! Reminded again. Thanks, Marcia

  3. jean selby 16 April, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

    Laugh and the world laughs with you – cry and you cry alone.
    A tried and true motto.

    • Kate Convissor 16 April, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

      …For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth
      But has troubles enough of its own.

      Be glad, and your friends are many
      Be sad, and you lose them all,
      There are none to decline
      your nectared wine
      but alone you must drink life’s gall.

      from the poem “Solitude” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Not too upbeat, but at least this one’s true! (I used to read it to my English classes. I don’t think anyone really “got” it.)

      Thanks for sharing, Mom.

  4. 50+ and on the Run 15 April, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

    Interesting–I never heard of this or of the artist. I really like public art, although it is often pretty “out there.” Thanks for the info, Kate!

    • Kate Convissor 16 April, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

      The [commissioned] subway art here is mostly just pleasant. I tried to get more info about this guy, but I’m not sure he’s done that much or is that well-known. I’m open to being wrong, however. So if anyone knows something I don’t…

      How’s the move going?


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