Public Art: Is it an Oxymoron? :: A criticism of the public art scene in America

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Art is journalism of the soul. At its best it is daring, original, and insightful. It is not always uplifting, nice, happy, and easily digestible. It can be many things and remains, of course, subjective to the viewer. Here in lies the problem. The audience of public art encompasses entire communities and so the art is subjected to the views of the many, making institutions that commission public art conservative about their selections of art. The goal in the public art scene seems to be a desire to commission works that no one doesn’t like. When you introduce this fear into the selection process you undermine arts ability to be fearless expression and therefore the ability of art to engage and challenge people.

I started down my path as an artist because I love it. I continued to pursue art because I realized it was important. It has the ability to communicate thoughts and emotions in such a way that it can affect our consciousness. By limiting the expression and subject matter of public art we are limiting the insight and the change it can have on individuals and society.

When referring to the ‘public’ what I mean is the masses, more specifically the unengaged masses. The enormous majority of people who are not tuned into the ‘Art World’. The ‘Art World’ being largely academia, art history, and art museums. Art museums being a unique case in that they are often public entities and are open to the public. I say they are part of the ‘Art World’, despite their openness to the public, because people have to choose to go there and they have a smaller audience. This gives them the ability to show more expressive and engaging art work without risking to much public backlash.

Of course people are not either engaged or unengaged with art but rather almost everyone exists in the grey area between totally uneducated/lives under a rock and the PHD art historian who has been teaching for 50 years. The huge majority of people are however disconnected with visual art in so much as they don’t seek it out and have little or no exposure to discussing it in a meaningful way. Despite my efforts to become informed as an artist, I grew up isolated from art and art history and feel as though I am still playing catch up in regards to having a working understanding of art history. Learning about art gives a context for looking at new art and although I strongly believe that this is an important and undervalued part of education I don’t think it is a prerequisite to viewing art. In kind, I don’t think that we need to treat the public with kid gloves, as it were, and provide them with watered down easy to digest art that offers nothing more than being pleasant enough to not offend anyone. I do not mean to say that art should or should not be beautiful. Beauty is a complex subject that I do not have room to delve into much in this post. But I will say there are many ways to express beauty and when a call for public work has beauty as one of their criteria they are referring to only the type that gives the viewer the sort of immediate gratification we get from a sunset, which is possibly the shallowest expression of beauty in its limitation as a mimic of nature. This criteria is almost ubiquitous in public art calls and may be the single biggest offender when it comes to limiting the scope of public works.

Public art creates the interesting and elusive problem of combining the long tradition that is the language of art and an audience that does not necessarily speak that language. It is true that art does permeate wider culture and that most people are exposed to some level of art and art history through mass media, marketing, and design. These forms however are all governed by markets and geared to attract and please the public not to engage it. Public art is not beholden to these markets and has the opportunity to engage and challenge communities.

This idea of engagement and challenge is worth clarifying. There are many ways art can accomplish some deeper engagement with an audience. To list a few; it can be allegorical, metaphoric, contradictory, politically or socially positioned, abstract, interactive, mysterious, etc. Any of these especially layered together create an engaging and challenging interaction. They challenge people to think and expand their minds. Even when someone is totally lost by a work of art, they have no idea what to think, there is value in that. They received confusion. They have been brought out of their comfortable isolated world into one of discovery. Furthermore, when people revisit art that confuses them they usually discover or create a space in their mind to place it and start to make sense of it.

I can already hear the objection to this sentiment. ‘People have enough challenges in life they don’t need to be confronted in public spaces by art.’ ‘People don’t want to have to explain disturbing or controversial images that they themselves do not fully understand to their kids.’ It is the argument airports use when justifying their lack of interesting art. ‘Traveling can be stressful so we only curate peaceful calming art that soothes and pleases our travelers.’ AKA beautiful, uplifting, easy to digest. I understand that challenging art can make us feel out of the loop at best and ignorant and uncomfortable at worst. What I propose is that this is perhaps a defect in us not in the expression of art. The challenge in viewing art is an opening up. Each work is an opportunity to define yourself against the visual idea of someone else. But, in a sense, the artwork exists only in the minds of individual viewers because everyone sees differently.

‘…the picture lives only through the man who is looking at it’ – Picasso on Art, ed. Dore Ashton (1972)

We can change how we view art and how we let it affect us. Also, I will posit that being offended, uncomfortable, or confronted by artwork is valuable to our society especially since the rise of political correctness to absurd levels seems to be creating an ultra-sensitive, chronically offended culture that leans away from free expression toward censorship. Public art in America is in a unique place to reverse its position and become a driving force for free expression and dialogue. 

As many of you are most definitely unfamiliar with the process of commissioning public works, allow me to radically simplify it. An institution wants a work of art, often they are mandatory under ‘funding for the arts’ building laws that force a certain percentage of building budgets go towards public art (usually 1-2%), they select a group of artists, arts professionals, and community members to represent the community and write a call for entry. Sometimes they reach out to the community for feedback on what they might like to see. Artists apply and the selection committee chooses an artist or artist team based on past work, experience, and an ability to complete the project on budget. There is nothing inherently wrong with this process except maybe the attempts to poll the community which only place limits on artists and cannot possibly be representative of the community. They often read like this; preferably the art should be colorful, elegant, interactive, and relate to the community and the history of the area. Sometimes the call for proposals are open ended which is a noble attempt to give some direction back to the artist. This is progress over the calls that are specific. However, it is also somewhat dishonest because there is a subtext to all public art. It has to be nice. 

One gets the feeling that public art needs to be justified to the public, it is payed for by tax dollars after all. However, this type of democratic thinking, while seemingly harmless, leads to cookie cutter artists who excel at making the white bread equivalent of art. Intellectually deficient objects that serve more as landmarks than as additions to communities or to the world of art. It seems to be a pervasive thought within public art committees that there job is to please everyone. A professor of mine once said that ‘it is a good thing if your work elicits praise or outrage, the worst thing is when it receives indifference’. . If we continue to measure the success of public art by the lack of complaints received it will continue to not live up to its potential.  This is the sentiment that we need to start judging public work. Democracy has no place in art. Arts center is the individual. The non-conformist thinking that drives the field of art needs the individual to be empowered. This is not to say that art doesn’t benefit from criticism or collaboration, it does, but when the power to dictate art is given to the community or a board or panel of representatives of that community with the intention of pleasing everyone it erodes the foundation of the art. The freedom is taken away from the artist at the detriment of the work.

The same thing has perhaps started to infect all art mediums; music, cinema, etc. The easily digestible works that play to undereducated crowds become successful because of its digestibleness. It is worth remembering that people will take what is immediately rewarding to their own detriment. The difference is that in movies or music you have less control over what people take in. The market is largely privately driven and geared towards mass consumption. In public art we have the opportunity to force challenging art on the public. To fulfill the intention of the funding for the arts initiatives and to enrich our public spaces.

You may wonder why I care so much especially since the advent of social media has made it easier than ever to get your work seen. Why bother with public art if it’s such a hassle? As a sculptor I hold the belief that something special happens when art enters into and occupies the same space as the viewer. Looking at it on a screen is not adequate. When art is placed in public settings it creates a common experience that the communities share. We live in an insular society where technology limits our needs to interact in person. Creating meaningful real world locations able to spark thought and discussion is a fundamental part of civilization and crucial to advancing a societies consciousness as well as sending creative inspiration shockwaves through every other field of study.

It is also worth noting that a considerable amount of funding for the arts is in the form of public art and every time that funding goes to an unambitious public art project it fuels a subculture of art businesses that have conformed their practice to play by the existing rules Instead of funding artist who challenge the current, broken, system.

Although there are many great public works all around the country, there are also many bad works, unambitious projects and an overall feeling of stagnation in the public art scene. In the few years that I have been viewing and applying for public proposals I have seen too much of this public money being poorly spent and not adding to the field of art or creating works to engage the public. It is a disappointing fact that I see most artists that are truly pushing the field disengaged with public art. In art circles it is almost an accepted reality that public art is often equivalent to soulless corporate art that exists one tier above hotel art. This is the impression that I have gotten from my brief dive into public art. I certainly don’t think that I know what art is ‘best’. One of the major challenges is the subjective nature of art and the wide range of interpretation and value even informed people place on art. This is an ever present challenge in art and is the reason that the people in charge of selecting public art must be as fearless in the face of criticism and failure as the artists in making the art.

Thank you for reading, please comment and share, as always I write to work out my thoughts and also to start conversation.