Is phobia behind the clown vandalism?
By CAROL E. LEE
SARASOTA -- Sure, some of the vandalism that has plagued downtown Sarasota's clown statues is probably pranks or quests for kudos from peers, akin to high school students nabbing street signs as trophies of machismo.
But the public art exhibit has taken a far worse beating than Chicago's cows, Bradenton's geckos or Venice's pigs ever did. And some psychologists say that's because these seemingly cheerful statues pack a powerful symbology.
"Clowns by their very nature are frightening beings that evoke fear," said Sarasota psychologist Eddy Regnier. "The clown is also a symbol of frivolity and fun, and people who suffer from depression, whose lives are not going well, often want to destroy them."
Vandalism began almost immediately after the October debut of the "Clowning Around Town" public art exhibit that benefits TideWell Hospice and Palliative Care.
Limbs were snapped off. Props disappeared. A clown was beheaded. And two were unbolted from their 300-pound concrete slabs and abducted.
It could be that some people look at a clown and see parts of themselves they hate: foolishness, sadness and weakness, said Sarasota psychologist David Peters.
"There's always something pathetic about the clown, and that's what generates the humor. But for some people that generates annoyance and anger," Peters said.
Public art usually undergoes some level of tampering.
Washington, D.C.'s 2004 panda exhibit took a hit, with one stolen sculpture turning up in the Anacostia River. But of the 150 statues scattered about the city, only two were severely damaged.
Even the 300 cow statues in Chicago only endured a couple of tippings and a few sets of sawed-off horns.
"Part of it I think is where they were located," said Marcel Bright, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department. "They were in areas where they were out in the open."
They were also animals, creatures that in real life do not typically evoke complicated human reactions.
Informed that Sarasota's exhibit features clowns, Bright fell silent. Then he said: "Oh, that's scary.
"Clowns, you can have a better understanding. People have this thing about clowns: You either love them or hate them."
It was not always this way.
Slapstick comedy, the essence of clowning, entertained crowds for centuries before fear entered the stage. In ancient societies, court jesters mocked kings when no one else could. Hollywood's popularity in the early 1900s came from clownish films featuring actors like Charlie Chaplin and Harry Langdon.
Then 1970s serial killer John Wayne Gacy dressed as a clown to entertain children at parties in his Chicago neighborhood. The following decades brought a tide of horror movies with clown villains. Pennywise terrorized children in Stephen King's "It." "Killer Klowns from Outer Space" turned humans into cotton candy cocoons and drank their blood through curly straws.
Coulrophobia, the clinical term for fear of clowns, was coined, and modern clown humor shifted from water-squirting flower gags to riffs on the entertainers.
Homey the Clown on the 1990s television show "In Living Color" was a convicted felon who entertained children as a condition of his parole. When kids asked him to perform, he smacked them on the head with a stuffed sock and said, "Homey don't play dat."
Mold the modern clown image into 6-foot-tall fiberglass statues, and they become easy targets, ripe for smashing, chopping and theft, psychologists said.
"If you're at a circus or at a parade, there's not really much you can do other than avert your eyes or walk away. But here is a situation that generates a lot of discomfort, and you can act out on that feeling," Sarasota psychologist Karen Saef said. "The people who are doing this destruction are not trying to prove a point. They're having their own destructive sequence with these clowns."
Many people spoke out against the clown art exhibit when city commissioners first considered it. Some even saw this coming.
But not the folks at TideWell.
"We didn't expect to be dealing with this two months after they'd gone on the streets," said TideWell spokesman Dave Glaser. "Especially when you consider what this project is all about."
For exhibit organizers, every bit of damage is money taken from a child in need.
And they don't play dat.