Needing Public Art III

My post on public art drew some pointed responses. Annie Larmon had some comments that deserve attention, although one assertion was a little weird: “The first sentence of your article reads much like an argument for intelligent design.” I don’t know where she gets that, what she means or how to respond.

The root of my argument is that bad art in public spaces, or even good art that is not suited for the space, is not a benefit to anyone, and that most public art works are one or the other. This assumes that there is a qualitative difference between works of art. Some are better than others. The nature of the distinction between good and bad art is too complex to deal with here, but suffice it to say it exists. A Caravaggio is inherently better than a Thomas Kinkade. The distinction is a continuum without sharp lines, and there’s plenty of room for disagreement within that range, but its existence is beyond question.

Later on she said “You provide no reference to the benefits of public art in community building, beautifying space and even rendering public spaces safe.”

There are three points here:
            Community building - there might be some community building with the meetings to choose an artwork, and a little more if it’s, say, a group mural project, but the community built is pretty small. Sometime the community-building is in opposition to a piece. I once had show of mine in a now-nonexistent greensward at the lower end of Free Street in Portland, and the community mobilized in opposition to it, even though it was only a six-week installation. They were interesting works, I think, but really in the wrong place. I’ve had other pieces in public spaces, mostly in New York but in other places as well,  over the years, and they have never really worked,
            Beautifying space - Maya Lin or Richard Haas can render a space more interesting than before, but lots, if not most, public art makes them less, rather than more, enjoyable.
            Safe - This is an assertion I’ve never heard before, and I don’t think it's credible. 

A. L.: “Art organizations, to my knowledge, revere public art for its accessibility (physically and often conceptually) to those who don’t frequent galleries and museums or haven’t read volumes on art theory.”

            It’s a little off topic, but arts organizations do have limited utility in the visual arts, which are by their nature a solitary enterprise. Public art can help give them a raison d’etre and help draw grants.

            You don’t learn to look at art by reading art theory, and in any case, really good public art does reach everyone. Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial reaches deeply for everyone who sees it. Richard Haas’s trompe l’oeil  renderings on the side of buildings are immediately appealing to all who see them, and have generated dozens of lesser copy-cats. James Wines’s integrations of sculpture and architecture are also easy to like, as are the Roger Majorwoicz pieces scattered around Maine. People get married inside Richard Serra’s pieces.

            Good art lasts and people enjoy it over time, even if they have no prior experience with art (see my first response on this topic here ). 

A. L.: “I certainly can think of bucketfuls of art in public spaces that are more of an eyesore to me than something to admire, or are kitsch to the degree that I find them laughable or obnoxious.”

             My point, exactly.

 A. L.:  “But to dismiss “public art” as a whole, unspecific genre, without even paying heed to it’s(sic) many forms, political possibilities, site specificity and potential for historical commentary, seems very uninformed, brash, and whiney.”

Three more points:

Political possibilities - Of course there are great political possibilities in  public art, as has been recognized by, for instance, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin. Political public art is almost always in service of the state, either the established state or some theoretical one, e.g., Social Realism.

Site specificity - All good public art is site-specific, either as matter of its intention, e.g., Smithson’s Spiral Jetty,  or its result, e.g., Picasso’s Horse. By itself, site specificity is a neutral characteristic.

Potential for historical commentary -  Visual art is very limited in its ability for any sort of commentary, and public art even less. My late friend Sidney Tillim labored for years trying to bring back history painting, in his case about colonial American politics, and he created some quirky and enjoyable works, but I don’t think they added much to the historical discourse.

Uninformed - I don’t think so. Having looked at public in a lot of different states and for more years than I care to admit, and having had some of my own pieces in public spaces,  I have the qualification of experience.

Brash and whiney. That’s up to you.


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