Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Power of Public Art: Connecting with Community

The Power of Public Art: Connecting with Community

By Tom Wachunas

(This article was published in the Fall edition of Northeast Ohio Municipal Leader magazine)

Even a cursory examination of art history will demonstrate the vast and dramatic changes that have transpired in societal definitions of art – its purpose, forms, and functions. Modernist and post-modernist practices have largely supplanted traditional artistic values, once perceived as practically universal and immutable, with what I like to call the embrace of esthetic relativism. What you consider to be “beautiful” art may very well be to me simply ugly, and not art. This brings up many prickly questions, including whether or not art necessarily needs to be beautiful at all. And to make matters muddier, what is beauty anyway? Like it or not, the state of 21st century arts is indeed a tangled web.

As art viewers we have come to depend increasingly upon a given context in determining the validity of a thing’s claim to be art. So it is with a kind of blind faith that we may encounter what we feel is an utterly mystifying object or picture in, say, an art museum. After all, it is an art museum, and presumably qualified and knowledgeable people in authority have determined that the things we behold there are indeed worthy of our consideration as art. We trust that the things we are seeing in that context have some respectable, explainable relationship with, or place in, the continuum of art history.

But what about art works placed at street corners, in public plazas, on building facades, or in city parks? Here the context is the tangled web of “out there,” in the world, in traffic. In a very real sense, works of public art bear a heavier burden (literally and figuratively) and responsibility than the art we normally see in the confines of a museum or gallery. The most compelling public artworks are essentially lasting evidence of fruitful dialogue among qualified individuals acting in concert to intentionally inspire and edify the public. Such works speak effectively, then, to not just our sense of the aforementioned art continuum. To some degree or another, they also must embrace their specific physical surroundings as well as the local history (where applicable) and overall civic sensibilities of the community that installed them. In short, the milieu in which these works must function and have relevance is both a social and an esthetic one.

In the process of conceiving and installing a work of art for the public arena, should the planners expect or even seek from the community a significant consensus of definitions, standards, and practices? If the planners’ only source of input is the proverbial man-on-the-street, then no. This is certainly not to say that the general population of a community is incapable of articulating opinions. A traditional democratic approach in this context, however, is untenable if only because of the increasing pluralism in esthetic tastes that our modern society seems to so deeply cherish. Intellectual biases and cultural predispositions have a tendency to constrain our ability to collectively evaluate works of art, making it practically impossible to speak with one voice. We simply like, perhaps too much, to agree to disagree.

Who, then, should ultimately shoulder the responsibility of searching for, and determining the nature and relevance of, a public work of art? And should the need arise, to whom do we go for an authoritative justification of the work’s esthetic qualities? The hired artist? City Council? A beloved local art tzar or rich benefactor? None of these, it seems to me, either singly or in combination, can necessarily assure a fair and balanced weighing of the issues that public art often raises. Complex questions must be addressed. Is it vitally important that viewers fully comprehend the work? Is controversial art necessarily a bad thing? How will the artist be selected? The very real danger in this scenario is that the art reflects a constricted sociopolitical agenda, or a personal vision far too narrow to have any significant meaning or appeal to the viewing public at large.

So in the long run, another proxy for the people needs to be considered in the form of an ad hoc partnership of various authorities - a committee of experts. Utilizing their combined expertise in both physical logistics as well as intellectual and esthetic content issues, these experts could identify and delineate an idea relevant to community interests, and select an artist capable of articulating it. All of the individuals comprising this partnership should be highly learned and accomplished in their respective professions. Those professions must necessarily span a variety of disciplines that may include architecture, painting, sculpture, landscape design, art history and curating, and fundraising. It’s vital that the committee also be diligent in seeking input from local civic leaders who have a clearly proven awareness of their community’s overall sense of itself – its social and cultural posture. Additionally, the committee should regularly inform the public of its process and progress via local media reportage (print, radio, and television).

Here, though, a caveat is in order. The establishment of such a committee, operating in even the most optimal conditions and with the best of intentions, is still not an unconditional guarantee of an art work that will thrill the entire viewing public. Such an expectation is simply unrealistic. Still, I believe that the varied make-up and procedures of the committee I have described here could provide the chemistry needed to arrive at an art offering that would not stir the viewing public’s outrage.

Such was precisely the case, for example, at the unveiling of the 1981 work, Tilted Arc, by world-renowned Minimalist sculptor Richard Serra. The work was placed in the center of Federal Plaza in downtown New York City. The piece was a menacing (a few called it graceful) steel wall 120 feet long and 12 feet high, paid for with taxpayer dollars and approved by the General Services Administration in Washington, D.C., which in turn was advised solely by a panel of prominent artists selected by the National Endowment for the Arts. There was no consultation within a broader community context. Immediate public reaction to the work was predominantly hostile, and after years of litigation and hearings, it was dismantled in 1989.

Even if a public work of art is privately funded, I don’t think its installation should be a license to ignore exploring its implications for the surrounding community. Otherwise there is the real possibility that the art is merely an insulated symbol of arrogance, declaring, “We put it here because we could.”

Art in the public arena can commemorate an important person, event or place, or simply be a thoughtful visual enhancement of the environment. Whatever its reason for being, the power and vitality of effective public art lies in its capacity to impart a meaningful encounter relevant to not only the community that installed it, but to all who see it. And whether a community is celebrating its past history, or presenting a vision of pride in its present, its public art, when carefully chosen, can leave a compelling legacy for generations to come.

Photo: “Tilted Arc” by Richard Serra, Federal Plaza, NYC, rolled steel, 120’x12’

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