Praxis Dialogues: Public art and its questions

On April 11, PennPraxis and PlanPhilly will present Praxis Dialogues, second in a series of public conversations about the notion of “the public good” in design practice. This time around we’re focusing on what the public good means in terms of arts and culture, and to set the stage we’re sharing commentaries from the panelists. First up, Ken Lum, professor of fine art at PennDesign and public art practitioner.


Is public art dead or alive?

In a recent article in Vulture titled “How New York Has Solved the Problem of Public Art. But at What Cost?,” Jerry Saltz proclaims that New York may have “cracked the seemingly impossible task of staging good public art” by “handing the job of curating [public art] to an autonomous art-world insider rather than a public panel of judges, politicians, bureaucrats, architects, or businesspeople.” He argues that “This move is especially helpful in an era when money and art are already mingled together to an unprecedented degree — meaning that these groups of people, the ambitious curators and the money people who make major projects actually happen, are far from strangers; in fact, immensely well-acquainted.”

Of course, in an obvious sense, this scenario of delivering name-brand contemporary art to the public domain would work in New York. It is a financial capital and home to many wealthy collectors and powerful art dealers and serves as the headquarters for numerous global corporations. These collectors, dealers, and corporations are more than willing to sponsor major public art projects. Indeed, it could be said that art gilds New York with spectacularity simply not possible without this confluence of money with power.

Is the solution to the problem of public art – namely that it is overly managed by powerful interests – to be found in the mirroring of the market system of contemporary art in art capitals like New York? Would that even work in a city like Philadelphia?

There exists an assumption that public art always contributes in some way to the “common good” (whatever that actually means) of a place. Such an assumption owes something to the indeterminacy of public art as a term; it is as much a relative term as it is a universal one. As such, it is a term that can be all things to all people.

Complicating a definition of public art are the auxiliary concepts that extend what can be considered art and what is in the domain of the public. Vital components of many recent political protests around the world have been creative in nature. Notable is how the graffiti, posters, street installations, and bodily performances created during the Arab Uprisings and Occupy Wall Street, for instance, have since been reframed in museum exhibitions dedicated to recreating and converting social rupture and dissent into an art-centered experience. The creative protesters of the street may not make claims to art as they aspire to an alternative politics that go beyond what art can do. Art on the other hand, lays claim to the methods and procedures of the creative protesters in an ever-enlarging language for art.

The relationship of public art to social criticism and the idea of a “common good” is an ambiguous one. Public art operates within a semantic trap. It is expected to say that which cannot be said and represent that which cannot be represented. And yet the realization of much public art today is being managed more and more by Official administration.

Today, interest in public art is greatly expanding. Art Biennales proliferate all over the world with their numerous civically sited public art installations. There are Nuits Blanches in many cities. Events such as Diner en Blanc have the air of an art happening and call to mind the performances of James Lee Byars and Suzanne Lacy. In Baltimore, a Light City Baltimore festival will soon take place with an “attention to laser and light displays and sculptures, large scale video projections, and interactive activities that emphasize spectacularity and group immersive experiences.” According to the Light City Baltimore website, the project will shine a light on Baltimore’s “abundance of creative, cutting-edge, and multi-disciplinary talent” in order to celebrate “ideas, ingenuity, and creativity through art, music, and innovation.” It sounds like fun, which I am sure it will be, but the language for staging an elaborate festival such as Light City Baltimore is increasingly adopted within the language of public art RFQs. (Proposals are often issued by private developments as well that are overseen by some degree of government.)

Indeed, the arc towards amusement and spectacularity in public art is being played out in terms of public art competitions, where public space solutions teams comprised of designers, engineers, architects and design-focused artists are winning an increasing number of competitions against artists who may approach public art from a more disjunctive point of view.

The tendency to ensure non-critical public responses represents a loss for public art in terms of its functioning as an across-the-grain presence in the public domain. It means limiting the constitution of the public domain itself, where the unsayable cannot be broached. It seems also that the narrower the limits of public art’s critical speech capacity, the more creatively entertaining, interactive and distracting are the rising forms of public art. What to do?

A useful starting point might be to ask some basic questions:

What kind of public (or publics) is constituted by the work of public art?

To whom does the public artwork claim to speak? Is the public artwork open to multiple addresses and contradictory readings?

What players are involved in the realization of a proposed public art? What are the problems posed by mediation when players can have conflicting and often compounding interests?  

In what ways can public art activate a space, especially in terms of a possible community social space?  What narratives and histories constitute a public art site’s sociality?

In what ways can the public artwork be thought of as a conduit between the voices of a community and embodied artistic experience?

Is it possible to think of public art outside of the agendas of official institutions and administering bodies? Relatedly can public art return art to some notion of a sacred that is connected to everyday experience and ritual?

What constitutes the life of a public work of art?

By posing such questions, demands are made of public art that keeps front-and-center the question of just what it is that makes public art truly public.

The public conversation Praxis Dialogues: Arts and Culture will take place on April 11, from 6:30-8pm at Fringe Arts, 140 N Christopher Columbus Blvd. The event is free and open to the public. Advance registration is requested as space is limited.

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