Some thoughts around art and politics (public art)

“There is need for experimentation in public art because its past is commonly associated with pretentious monumental sculpture, and its present with spineless content. Public art is now expected to satisfy and serve many purposes, but not necessarily that of serious address. However, public art can be innovative, because in some respects it already challenges fine art conventions. It is not intended for gallery display and therefore can be adventurous in scale and presentation. The work is not the expression of the artist alone, but the outcome of a complex process of negotiations. It is not committed to certain mediums or to permanence. However, these releases can be hazardous as well as liberating for public art. Who will notice the work if it is not in an expected place? How will it be received without frame, pedestal, label? What will indicate that the work has been planned at all if it doesn’t look like art?
(Elizabeth H. Norman, Going Public: Public Art in Sheffield, SHU Press, 1996)

So:

1. What are a public artwork’s purposes?

2. Apart from matters of space, how does it challenge fine art conventions?

3. Silly question, but I like the way it’s worded: the idea of public sculptures as a kind of urban fungi, that simply spring up…

“…The agency of the local consists in moulding global forces (which arrive from outside) to specific circumstances. Local place… is the locus of the production of heterogeneity.” (Doreen Massey, 2004)

“If traditional public art identified certain classical styles as appropriate to the embodiment of public images, contemporary public art has turned to the monumental abstraction as its acceptable icon. What Kate Linker calls the “corporate bauble” in the shopping mall or bank plaza need have no iconic or symbolic relation to the public it serves, the space it occupies, or the figures it reveres. It is enough that it serve as an emblem of aesthetic surplus, a token of “art” imported into and adding value to a public space.” (Mitchell, 1994)

Perhaps “aesthetic surplus” can be seen as an expression of the collective subconscious, and so a deeper indication of how any given city sees itself, how it interprets the various larger narratives and forms them into part of its own reality. The pieces I’m thinking of in particular are the totally abstract and forgotten: a concrete frieze, for example, I noticed recently behind John Lewis. Most Council-commissioned works are probably only corporate branding – but even this fits into the “surplus” idea, especially in Sheffield, where steel is dutifully incorporated into anything and everything. (Spandrels of Steel).

Is art’s function (dubious word) decided ultimately by the space it finds itself in? If, as they say, half of an artwork’s meaning/value is its context, how easy is it to critique both halves at the same time? (Art in a gallery is, conventionally, isolated from its space, and municipal art is evaluated solely on how it fits in to its environment. This could be resolved in an exhibition: photographs of Sheffield’s public artworks are displayed in a gallery. The first day of viewing, photos are taken of people looking at the photos. These replace the original set for the second day – further photos are taken, which are substituted the third day. And so on. The work would only be completed after the exhibition closes. It could be called: ‘Site-Specific’.)

“Can provocative art endure the democratic composition of the selection panel and process?” (Phillips, 1989)

Is provocative art possible at all? Municipal commissions are necessarily the result of consensus, whereas in the institutional art world (we might debate this distinction between ‘institutional’ and ‘public’) there is a kind of uniformity of disunity. The essentialist assumption seems to be that, because municipal art is created through a ‘dry’, unartistic process, in which any original ideas are bulldozed by bureaucratic procedure, the results must be apolitical and artless. But the art of an object is formed in the manner of its perception – art is only imaginative as its viewer – and so municipal art may be reappropriated, and assigned new values.

“Public art has always dared to dream, projecting fantasies of a monolithic, uniform, pacified public sphere, a realm beyond capitalism and outside history. What seems called for now, and what many contemporary artists wish to provide, is a critical public art that is frank about the contradictions and violence encoded in its own situation, one that dares to awaken a public sphere of resistance, struggle, and dialogue.” (Mitchell, 1994)

These are just notes, and need refining. Also various things – permanence, monumentality, contingency (of course) – I haven’t mentioned, but are probably worth thinking about. Ideally, we would have a collection of contradictory essays about Sheffield’s public art, in which the collection’s motives – amongst others (possibly), the envelopment of those sculptures in the familiar/fashionable discourse – are also actively challenged. So, in the end, it would be a questioning of itself, of the possibility of collaborative dissensus…

Patricia Phillips (pp. 122-133 here) informs us that New York’s Sanitation Department has an artist-in-residence (although unsalaried). This strikes me as eminently sensible – I don’t suppose Sheffield has a similar scheme?

E.D., June 12 2011

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