Tag Archives: public art

Where Should Public Discussions Take Place?

How do we, as public humanists and interpreters, help create space for public discussion and debate in museums rather than simply a public space to view private works? Where should these discussions take place: in the galleries, in creating the work, or even in the governance of the museum?

I found Hilde Hein’s chapter “Public Art” History and Meaning” particularly useful to think through the distinctions between art in a public place and public art. While a visitor to a public museum could come and leave without interacting with anyone, a person engaged in a public art work is compelled “to refine communication skills” by interacting with other visitors and the artist (Hein 55). The artist cannot loose sight of the visitor, as a grouping of the public is needed to create the work. Hein points to recent public art as examples of “replac[ing] answers with questions” and “mak[ing] room for doubt,” lessons from which traditional museums can learn (76). For Hein, the public interacts with the materials and concepts, though the artist probably retains the authority on the initial idea.

Bandelli has a more radical method to bring the public into the museum. While Hein focuses on the public’s role in interacting with established programming, Bandelli advocates for public input in museum decisions. I imagine this would include choosing which exhibits are displayed and perhaps helping to curate some of the work. How does the meaning of the public change as individuals are invited into the decision making process? Are they still members of the public once they have inside status and information or does their role change in some way? I’m interested to further consider how Bandelli and Hein’s views intersect, differ, and play out in various museum settings.

On Critical Public Design

“The new public art is local and vernacular. Obsessively ordinary, it may be vulgar, irreverent, and even repulsive. It is suspicious of beauty as aesthetic affectation, a false friend, culturally relative, and maybe a distraction.”

Hilde Hein, Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently

As I read through Public Art, I wondered if it would not be useful to make a distinction between public art and public design, rather than between critical public art and (uncritical?) public art. Hein begins her chapter on “Innovation in Public Art” with an epigraph by Krzysztof Wodiczko that defines critical public art as “an engagement in strategic challenges to the city structures and mediums that mediate our everyday perception of the world: an engagement through aesthetic-critical interruptions…” (96). I spent part of the chapter wondering whether uncritical, aesthetically-minded public art serves a function and came to the conclusion that I think it does (namely, beautifying public spaces) and rather than consider it a lesser a form of art, it might be more useful to think of it as something else.

A planter on Cesar Chavez Avenue in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. 

Of course, my use of the word design might imply that the primary distinction between design and art is a focus on making things beautiful. I don’t mean to be reductive, as there are certainly critical designers and there is critical design. Hein points out that is difficult to be an effective social practice artist: “To rally a public, artists must therefore analyze it carefully, and this is a task for which few are prepared…Striving toward engagement, artists risk appearing both crudely hectoring and cynically opportunist, their symbolic interventions indistinguishable from the manipulations of the commercial marketplace.” (101)

But beauty does serve an important role in our public spaces. It makes our communities pleasant places to live. Rather than downplay the significance of beauty, perhaps it is better to simultaneously promulgate it and interrogate it: to say that we like beautiful public spaces and also acknowledge that the practice of beautifying public spaces is, philosophically, uncomfortably close to broken ideas like “urban renewal,” and broken windows theory, for that matter.

Hein writes that “Rejecting the passivity promoted by conventional aesthetic and critical theory that pertains to private art, we may revert to an earlier claim that art is transformative: it can change your life…Not content with merely affecting subjective experience, contemporary public art aims to change the world through multitudes of public events” (110). I would argue that, by questioning as it beautifies, critical public design could change the world just as well.

A crosswalk on Pike Street in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Washington.

Works Cited

Hein, Hilde. Public Art : Thinking Museums Differently. Blue Ridge Summit, US: AltaMira Press, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 14 February 2017.

Should Museums look to the Public Art Model?

Thinking through our conversation last week about publics and museums and the interrelationship between the two, I found Hilde Hein’s Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently thought provoking in its argument that museums can learn from public art methods. Hein explains that public art is created with the intended purpose of instigating discourse about important social issues among the public (64, 89). In this sense, the art itself is not an aesthetic product, but rather a process in which public reaction and discussion is embodied within the art itself (90). Recognizing public art’s positive impact on the public, Hein argues that as museums attempt to distance themselves from their paternalistic, top-down tradition, they should embrace the public art model (18). In fact, she posits, museums in of themselves are public art in so far as they are public places that spark public discourse (17). Like the ephemeral nature of public art, Hein writes that museums should not offer undeniable truths, but rather should present less rigid and more fluid narratives that promote exchange between visitors and the institution (18).

While Hein provides a convincing viewpoint, I was left wondering if it is practically possible for museums to embrace this methodology. Public art, according to Hein, is mobile and temporary, while museums are bureaucratic institutions with expenses and responsibilities to their donors, board members, and invaluable collections. Therefore, while public art may be a jumping off point for thinking through how to improve the museum experience, I think it is also necessary to highlight and recognize their fundamental differences.