Public art and public space (2000)

Glenn Harper
artdesigncafé - art | 7 January 2011
This text is from a lecture given at the symposium “The role of public sculpture in the 21st century” at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA in October 2000.

Rosalyn Deutsche’s book, Evictions: Art and spatial politics, suggests that art makes its own public space. Art is a social relation, Deutsche insists, but it is a relation of a particular kind, not autonomous but not identical with other forms of everyday life (Deutsche, 1996: p. 237). Deutsche says that "art is not simply an object susceptible to manipulation by preexisting interests or social forces…Art per se remains socially neutral; art and society remain discrete identities" (ibid: p. 237). What she sees as a critical public art retains an autonomy and a role in public space for art as art. She insists that public space depends on conflict rather than solidarity: an idea that is reminiscent of Paul Valéry’s comment that conversation is about resistance, rather than acceptance, of what the other person is saying. Valéry was talking about the conversation between artist and critic, but it also applies to the conversation between artist and audience, and the resistance can go both ways. Deutsche’s point of view on public space leads to an art of diversity rather than an art of community or majority. She suggest a metaphor that she adopts from Beatriz Colomina, the window between public and private space, with its implication of multiple points of view and, hence, critical difference. But the metaphor goes further: Colomina suggests that architecture itself is "a viewing mechanism that produces the subject. It precedes and frames its occupants" (Colomina, 1996: p. 250). A public is constructed by means of acts of imagination—an insight that suggests that the role of artists (technicians of the imagination) in public space can be much more than shallow truisms or decorative surfaces. The art that Deutsche discusses is often temporary or performative, such as the various projections and narrative projects of Krzysztof Wodiczko.

Other notions of public space don’t include much room for imagination or even the artist. Architect Peter Rowe, for example, defines the most effective development of a public space as "civic realism," founded along the "politico-cultural division between civil society and the state." Rowe says that in such successful realizations of an "in between" civic or public space, "a certain amount of avant-gardism can be useful…although it is by no means fully consistent with other requirements of civic realism" (Rowe, 1999: p. 37). Rowe’s "realism" relies on the "representative" public sphere, in which art and architecture play a symbolic role, representing and embodying the values and ideals of the society in their construction of public space. In his view of public space, the artist’s role is subordinate to those public symbols and to the power brokers who have control over the civic borderline he describes as well as the symbols themselves. The public art of this model of public space is the art that follows the program or decorates the architecture.

It is not only what we might see as architectural conservatism that relegates the artist to the background. Lucy Lippard says, in her book, The lure of the local, that: "Eventually, perhaps ’public art’ would no longer exist. Its successor might or might not be called art…Public artists would be facilitators, maybe anonymous, rather than egocentric creators…" Lippard’s communitarian view of the public sphere, coming from an opposite ideological position from Rowe’s, calls for art that is part of lived experience (Lippard, 1997: p. 5). But Lippard’s is an "after the revolution" notion of a public space that she envisions as occupied by open dialogue in the "everyone else’s lives" that she refers to. As in Plato, artists are ultimately excluded from the utopian republic, at least in their role as identifiable agents or individual creators. The art of this model of the public is the community-based project, responding to surveys of how the public wants to be represented or what they conceive in advance that they want in "their space." The result is often benches and gathering spaces, paving tiles and murals.

Both the representational model on the right and the communitarian model on the left lead to the insistence that the artist defer to the group, rather than the group seeking to learn from the vision of the artist. Both veer toward an anti-intellectualism that is masked on all sides of the political spectrum by charges of elitism. Rowe expects artists to subdue their art in the service of accessible symbols, and Lippard expects them to subdue their art in the service of a shared public or community. In both cases, art is instrumental—they are saying that art in the public sphere is of necessity in the service of something else, some higher goal.

An artist about whom Lippard wrote earlier in her career, Ad Reinhardt, said that "art is not the spiritual side of business." To paraphrase Reinhardt against Rowe and Lippard, art is not the spiritual side of commercial development, and art is not the construction branch of community development. Reinhardt insists that we look at what art accomplishes as art. Can we not have an art that is, as art, part of lived experience in public space? Rather than art as social work or art as a reinforcement of the decorative screen against which collective or even subversive images are projected?

If Rowe sees public space as a screen on which representations of civic virtue embodied in public art are projected, and Danto expects art to be a mirror in which we see ourselves as we are, Colomina’s or Deutsche’s model offers a way to see public art as the viewing mechanism through which we may see our multiple reality but which simultaneously creates or constructs us as a public. Colomina’s viewing mechanism is a useful model because it leaves room for both the artist and the viewer, who share in the construction of a public by means of their confrontation with public art and the public sphere it creates. The model is also useful in suggesting that whether it is monumental or ephemeral, public art is never fixed in its reference or its meaning— which is as imaginary as "the public," and can in fact participate in the act of imagination involved in the creation of the public.

To develop an aesthetic of public art as art, and not just art as an architectural decoration or a social service program, we need to reconsider what the artist does as an artist— and that is often a resistance, rather than an affirmation, of community or the public program. (John Dewey insisted that we remember that, after all, one of the major human activities undertaken in the name of community is violence.) As Patricia Phillips says, "There need to be many small excursions that consider and embrace the multiple conditions of public life—and not the singular view promoted by the sponsor of projects, the public agency, or the private developer" (Phillips, 1995: p. 71). The window or the excursion that the artist can provide offers multiple views precisely because the artist is not within (but also not wholly autonomous from) the agency’s, the developer’s, or for that matter the community’s point of view. The therapeutic art projects like Revival Field on one hand or some aspects of Project Row Houses on the other succeed as art precisely in reframing social experience; without a traditionally visual or high art component, they nevertheless succeed as art even if they fail as social or scientific projects, if they create a viewing mechanism that frames our experience in such a way that our vision of our lives and possibilities is changed.

Patricia Phillips concludes that public art is a sign of life and a summons for "active, connected public beings" (ibid, pp. 72-3). but such an art results from the artists’ own vision, which can provide the viewing mechanism that can actively engage a diverse society.

Jeffrey Kastner also asked, in his response to a survey conducted by Public Art Review, "In the context of art history, what will future generations say was the value of public art done in this century?" The best we can do is look around at the public art work we have erected and ask ourselves what sort of legacy it leaves for the communities of the future. Unless we make a critical assessment of that legacy, we risk wasting the chance for artists to influence the public space of today and tomorrow.

Beatriz Colomina. (1996). Privacy and publicity: Modern Architecture as mass media. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1996.

Rosalyn Deutsche. (1996). Evictions: Art and spatial politics. Cambridge: MIT Press 1996.

Lucy Lippard. (1997). The lure of the local: Senses of place in a Multicentered Society. New York: The New Press.

Patricia Phillips. (1995). “Public Constructions,”. In Suzanne Lacy (Ed.). Mapping the terrain: New genre public art. Seattle: Bay Press.

Peter Rowe. (1999). Civic Realism. Cambridge: MIT Press.