The State Department is planning to spend $400,000 in taxpayer funds to buy a sculpture for the new American embassy being built in Islamabad, Pakistan, according to contracting records.
The work, by noted American artist John Baldessari, depicts a life-size white camel made of fiberglass staring in puzzlement at the eye of an oversize shiny needle — a not-so-subtle play on the New Testament phrase about the difficulty the wealthy have in entering the kingdom of heaven.
Officials explained the decision to purchase the piece of art, titled "Camel Contemplating Needle," in a four-page document justifying a "sole source" procurement. "This artist's product is uniquely qualified," the document explains. "Public art which will be presented in the new embassy should reflect the values of a predominantly Islamist country," it says. (Like the Bible, the Qur'an uses the metaphor of a camel passing through the eye of a needle.)
To emphasize Baldassari's fame, the contracting officials pulled a section from Wikipedia. "John Anthony Baldessari (born June 17, 1931) is an American conceptual artist known for his work featuring found photography and appropriated images."
In a statement, State Department press spokeswoman Christine Foushee said the proposed purchase comes from the department's "Office of Art in Embassies." In new construction projects, she said, a small part of the total funds, about 0.5%, is spent on art purchases.
Steven Beyer of Beyer Projects, the art dealer for the project, said the government reached out. "They approached us," he said in a phone interview. "We were, of course, quite surprised."
The $400,000 price tag "is actually a very a reduced price for this sculpture," he said. "There is an art market that makes these prices, and this is one of the most prominent American artists."
Another copy of "Camel Contemplating a Needle" is on display at Hall Wines in Napa Valley, Calif., and Beyer said that copy sold for far more then the State Department would pay.
He points out that while some Americans may find it frivolous for the government to pay for art, others will find it important. "It depends on what part of the public you are in," he said. "If you go to the museum and enjoy art and are moved by it, things cost what they cost."
To put the sculpture's price tag into a local perspective, the average yearly income in impoverished Pakistan is about $1,250 per year, according to the Agency for International Development.