Public Art can be a contentious issue for several reasons. Often people find public artworks to be eyesores, as seen in the recent backlash from the completion of Anish Kapoor’s Olympic Park sculpture. At other times public art commissions are unambitious and lead to poor artworks lining roads or sitting in village greens. Much Street Art, in particular graffiti, is destroyed as quickly as it is created, and is bemoaned by many as being aggressive or just ugly.
It is little surprise that Public Art suffers some degree of outspoken criticism. While gallery art takes its own share of lambasting, it is still safely ensconced within the white cube, the traditional art space where the public visit less often. Public Art on the other hand is displayed in the public domain, most often installed as a permanent fixture. This leaves more room for vocal criticism, and the public response to Public Art can be outspoken and fierce. In 1989 Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was removed from its home at Federal Plaza, New York, after numerous complaints including how the work attracted graffiti, distracted workers and obstructed the public walkway.
Tilted Arc was an early work that helped spark the ongoing debate about public funding for Public Art. Much of the finger-pointing is directed toward the use of government funds to include artworks as a necessity during construction, as with Percent for Art schemes worldwide. There can also be something said for the unambitious quality of much of the work that is made for these schemes. It is difficult for artists to embed strong messages in artworks that are being commissioned by groups who do not want political or social agendas attached to their buildings or roads. As a result the works can be largely tame and unimaginative – “safe” art for lack of a better term.
Serra‘s tactful response to the public outcry over Tilted Arc was to declare that “art is not democratic” and that the public should not be involved. As avant-garde as this response is, it has a historical basis when observing the patrons (public and private) in the past who have supported the arts. Although Public Art is in the public realm it is funded by large bodies – either governmental or private institutions – who can afford major commissions.
Over the last two decades Serra’s opinion has been put to the test with the popular rise of Street Art. The 90s saw the urban landscape became a canvas for a disillusioned youth to decorate. Graffiti and Street Art began to represent a popular “people-first” way of displaying art in the public realm, although crucially without funders.
Banksy and company became the forerunners of a new movement that began to push social messages and ideas, using the urban sphere as a forum. It is interesting to see the dichotomy between Serra’s statement about the public role in the creation of art and the boisterous public response to Jacek Tylicki, Shepard Fairey and others who use the urban landscape as a space to create public discourse.
Due to the fact that most street art is not welcomed in its setting, there is also a difference in terms of time between the Public Art of the “high art” variety and the Street Art alternative. Street art is made to be transient, and even powerful and appreciative works like those of Conor Harrington are more often than not destroyed soon after they are made. With public art longevity is included in the design features of the works – most are made from robust materials and built to stand the test of time.
Whether the transient street art is a reflection of the more transient nature of life today or simply a more permanent stage that is under construction remains to be seen. As shown in the recent hilarious documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop, street art is gaining a value in high art society too. It still makes me giggle when I see chunks of broken-off wall with Banksy images spray-painted on display in commercial art galleries.
But the movement of street art from the street to the gallery seems to be a backward progression – granted it offers an income to artists who had little to gain from continuing to create street art, but it does then enclose the artworks back in the white cube where discursive art was beginning to emerge from.
So there emerges a possible trend.
Public Art is not for the public. Street Art is leaving the streets. Is it about time that we saw gallery art in supermarkets?
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