Travel & Leisure
updated 12/6/2011 2:19:02 PM ET 2011-12-06T19:19:02

The high-rises of Paris’s La Défense district have questionable company: César Baldaccini’s 40-foot-tall model of his own thumb. Given its pedestrian-flattening size and ugly wrinkles, there’s much to find, ahem, opposable.

It used to be that if you needed to perk up a street or park, a statue of a mustachioed general on horseback or a goddess in a toga would do nicely. But these days, being pretty or handsome just isn’t enough of a goal for public art: most attempt to make a splash, whether by being gigantic, stridently eclectic, borderline tasteless, or (ideally) some combination. And if that means bringing on the ugly, so be it.

To come up with candidates for the world’s ugliest public art, we sought pieces that shot for the moon and…missed. Size counted: a weird little mural might not be your cup of tea, but it’s a lot easier to overlook than a gargantuan sculpture of a starlet captured exposing her underwear, or an awkwardly proportioned monument that casts a pall on a whole neighborhood.

The design of public art is sometimes off-putting because it’s not only unattractive, but also downright perplexing. While public clocks are a time-honored tradition, consider the steam-belching model with a hole and a faux metronome on view in New York City’s Union Square. The clock’s 15 LED digits have been confusing passersby since 1999.

Of course, many of the artists whose work is featured here are probably in on the joke, and wouldn’t be bothered by a little ribbing. No one would ever make peeing automatons or an overstuffed rabbit if he or she weren’t ready to face a little blowback.

And if you find yourself thinking that a few of these works don’t deserve inclusion on this list, so much the better. We might have been too hasty. As the Boston art critic Greg Cook puts it, “Public art—even works we hate—should be given a chance. Years. Sometimes it takes a while for something to grow on you. Sometimes it takes a while just to figure something out.”

We’re not sure that that’s going to make many of these works much more palatable, but hey, you never can tell. In the meantime, we’ll continue to give the angry lady with dreads, the sinister monk, and all the rest a very wide berth.

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