Is “Public Art” Possible?

Erika Doss’ framing of statues and memorials as “public art” made me rethink our previous discussion on art and publics. I was suspicious then and continue to wonder whether the concept of “public art” is a contradiction in terms.

Last time, we talked about the “right process” for selecting and installing public art. I take Hilde Hein’s definition, which rules out the many art pieces that are simply decorative assertions by private players in public places. Her definition favors the more intentional and social curation of art that “constructs a public” through a “shaping event.” (67-68) Still, I think it’s worth considering whether this kind of professionally-overseen “public art” is impossible. Here are a few contentions/problems I’ve been thinking about along these lines…

  • Public art invites ideological control. Doss observes, “the pace of commemoration has quickened, and the number of memorials has escalated, because growing numbers of Americans view public art as a particularly powerful vehicle of visibility and authority.” (37) This means that in the making of public art, public debates over history, values, and national symbols end in the final expression of the winner’s taste. And the winner, most likely, reinforces dominant racial, class, gender and political ideologies.
  • Public art appropriates public resources. In a sense, public art simply steals public space (and often money) for uses determined by a smaller segment of that public. For instance, a statue in a public park turns space previously available to members of the public for whatever uses they choose over to a specialized public that deems itself worthy of making decisions on the public’s behalf. So, the result is less public space.
  • Public art reasserts cultural hierarchy. The Mary Mullen argument: if public art (or commemoration) requires negotiation among private, non-profit, and government partners who manage public sites, it is more likely that the preferences of curators, academics, artists, and other “experts” will determine the outcome.

These problems certainly don’t gaurantee negative outcomes. And I think, on the whole, they are worth working through. But it is also worth recognizing that all of these elements, to some extent, undermine the public: less choice, less space, less participation. It is difficult to create or commission “public art” or commemorations because they exist organically. Public art manifests in graffiti walls, sidewalk chalk mosaics, the ephemeral memorials Doss studies, and street performance (like the Wisconsin Solidarity Singers). If we want to encourage art and commemoration in public, should we offer more blank canvasses for making, rather than making “public art”?

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