Needing Public Art II

My recent post about public art drew two pointed responses.

Paul wrote that my argument that made a direct comparison from art to newspapers, and by extension if we couldn’t have good newspapers we shouldn’t bother to have any. The function of newspapers is to provided information for civic life. A bad newspaper is probably better than no newspaper at all, although we may find that out soon anyway, for reasons unrelated to my argument about art.  The Press Herald is a shadow of its former self, but that doesn’t mean it is without value.

 Art doesn’t function that way. A mediocre work of art in a public space adds nothing to civic life and degrades the space. On the contrary, it proves to most people who see it that art doesn’t have much to add to the quality of life, even if that transaction occurs unconsciously.

 One of my arguments is that the process currently used to get art into public spaces is fundamentally flawed. My other argument is that it is in fact better to have no art in public spaces than bad art.

 Here’s an example, limited in scope for clarity of argument. Let’s say you have a public lobby in a high-rise apartment building with a space for a painting. Whatever painting you put there will be passed by dozens of people hundreds of times over the years. You could put, say a Thomas Kinkade (‘the Painter of Light’ franchise brand) print or a Bill Manning painting there. It is my conviction, based on my own experience and that of many others, that over time the Manning would still be looked at, and the Kinkade would become wallpaper. Prior experience with art wouldn’t matter. Over time repeated exposure to the better work would have an positive effect, however small, on the spirits of the passers by. People would occasionally find themselves looking at it.

This is not a matter of style. You could replace the Manning above with Lois Dodd or Rackstraw Downes or Sam Cady  and the same thing would happen.

Outdoors in a big public space it’s much harder to get it right, but the same rule applies.

 Annie Lamon had a much more complex response, about which more later.

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