More thoughts on Reading Loop, 1/6/2011 (public art)

Ars Impudicus

1) Is that Art for the public? Or Art of the public?

I don’t really have a problem with the idea of art as having a function; it’s only very recently in our history that we have had the opportunity to test what would happen if art was uncoupled from purpose (others might disagree). Matthew Collings reminds us that all art is contemporary because all art is perceived in the present … which means that most of the art that we see (fine art as well as commercial art) has (or has had) a purpose.

Prior to the statement of certain theoretical positions the relation between art and function was considerably more clear; art had, amongst others, educative, spiritual or status driven purposes. The function of art was to improve minds, save souls or confer kudos on the owner. The function of art is also culturally (and institutionally) determined – in the former Soviet Union and Maoist China the above distinction between art ‘for’ the public and art ‘of’ the public would have perhaps been irrelevant (others might disagree).

Art for the public still carries the baggage of oppression, the taint of the ruling classes (with or without connotations of wealthy patronage) is in its genome; though now, beyond the hegemony of brokerage and curation, we finally have the ‘democracy’ of the on-line public vote.

The brief for a public art commission (usually determined by a worthy committee) will usually read along these lines:

We want a work of art that reflects the rich cultural history of so and so regeneration area.

Ideally we would like a mural or some benches please … preferably by somebody who has done this sort of thing before …

… for some reason rust would appear to be the patina of choice.

2) Matters of space with regard to public art remain conventional: public art tends to manifest itself in spaces reserved for common usage (common ground) such as parks, plazas, recreation areas, schools. Cyberspace, perhaps, offers a real (or not-so-real) alternative.

Which brings us to the subject of perception. In answer to E.D. I would argue that the manner in which an artwork is perceived is not merely limited by the imagination of viewer, but is also dependent on a wide range of demographic factors that ultimately depends on faith – faith in art and, in many cases, in a spiritual sense of ‘faith’.

But, personally, I like it best when art ‘for’ the public becomes art ‘of’ the public ‘by’ the public.

Remember the incident when the Angel of North was dressed in a replica of Alan Shearer’s shirt by Newcastle United fans? Alan Shearer ‘became’ the Angel of the North. The monument (monument to what exactly – hope?) takes on a new vernacular. By being clothed in the local colours it also becomes ‘loved’.

By way of contrast there is the example of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s ‘Turbulence’, a series of glowing balls floating in the River Teifi in Cardigan. On the river bank there is a series of horns into which passers by can speak. At certain times of the tide these words are later repeated back by loudspeakers within the balls. At the public presentation of the visuals for the project the balls intoned solemn lines from Dylan Thomas’ poetry.

Local youths, however, had great fun shouting obscenities into the speaker-horns. The obscenities then lay in wait like tide controlled time bombs, to be released at unsuspecting passers by.

3. Fungi

My favourite fungus is the Stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus) I once saw a particularly fine example in the car park near to the Ladybower cycle hire. This was at a weekend, the place was heaving with families. No one seemed to notice the impudent fungus in their midst. Perhaps this might suggest a way forward?

Paul Evans

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