Public Art and Public Spaces
As long as there has been art there has been public art. But this does not mean that public art has always meant the same thing to the people who made it or the community that it was made for. This paper examines four moments in history and four specific artworks as a way of examining how the function of art in public places has changed as well as the ways in which it has not changed, over the centuries. This paper begins at a moment long before many people would place the beginnings of public art – with the Paleolithic drawings on the walls in French caves and ending with the works of Maya Lin. As each moment in time presents a different form of public art, no single, overriding definition of the term will be offered here. Rather, each moment in history and each example of art will require its own definition of public art.
When we look at the Paleolithic art of France, we are struck by how similar it is in many ways to far more modern art. For example, one of the most striking elements of the cave art of France is the importance of different animals in these paintings, a fact that links this most ancient human art to modern realist traditions. And yet to appreciate this ancient art fully, we must not simply compare it to modern. We must rather try to understand the importance of cave paintings to life during the Paleolithic in what is now France, and so must look beyond the cave walls themselves to the world inhabited by these early artists to ask ourselves why it is they painted these images for others to see. For it seems clear that these images were intended to be seen by others. We may think of them as being semi-private – hidden away in caves from public view. But this reflects our own view of caves rather than that held by people who lived them, seeking shelter in them everyday. These paintings were not private in the sense that paintings hanging in an individual’s home are private today. Rather, they are analogous to the paintings that we might see in the lobby of a courtroom or an office building; that is, they were equivalent to public art today.
The world inhabited by European humans in the Paleolithic Period, just before the final retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age (15,000-10,000 BC) was very different indeed than our own, and thus it should be striking to us how very similar in many ways the public art that these people created is to our own. When these first-known examples of art created to be shared by a community were made, most of Europe was peopled by small bands of nomadic hunters preying on migratory herds of reindeer, cattle, bison, horses, mammoth, and other animals whose bodies provided them with food, clothing, and the raw materials for tools and weapons. That these primitive hunters decorated the walls of their caves with large paintings of the animals that were so important for their physical well-being should hardly be surprising.
What exactly did these paintings mean? Ideas about that have in fact changed dramatically over time, reflecting not so much new knowledge received about the actual lives of Paleolithic peoples but rather changing modern ideas about the relationship between all humans and art, as Ucko (1990) argues. During the 19th century, scholars of Paleolithic art argued for a purely aesthetic interpretation of Paleolithic art, believing that the earliest human artists were like those that they idealized in their own time who were creating “art for art’s sake.” This may or may not have been true; the archaeological record is simply too incomplete for us to be able to determine the motivations of artists creating paintings and sculptures so many thousands of years ago. (It is also arguable that artists working in the 19th century were not themselves making art for art’s sake only but had mixed motivations.)
Some nineteenth-century scholars argued that the cave paintings should be seen as attempts to influence reality, that the images painted on cave walls (and this would perhaps have been especially true of the portrayals of animals) had a totemistic value. In other words, people painted animals to help hunters have better luck in the hunt, either in terms of capturing prey or in terms of surviving the hunt without injury. In a similar vein, other important types of Paleolithic that seem to celebrate female fertility, such as the Venus of Wallendorf, might have been used as totems that would help to ensure the continuing existence of the tribe itself.
There are clear connections to the ritual element of these artworks to work in our own times. These first examples of public art were probably at least in part designed both to fill people’s eyes with beauty and to help them feel a connection to something like the divine as well as a connection to both past and future. Those who made these paintings in sheltered spaces would have expected, or at least hoped, that they would endure.
We now turn our time machine many years into the future, to the Middle Ages. While most of what we think of as art – paintings, sculptures, tapestries – were in private hands, secured inside the domestic spaces of the wealthy – there were massive public art building programs in the form of the cathedrals of this era. We may not be inclined to think of these cathedrals as being “real” public art, but again we must be careful to consider how it is that we have constructed this category in which space that is publicly claimed and artistic enterprises overlap each other. In the Middle Ages in Europe there were many spaces from which the majority of the population was barred. One of the few public places that was open to everyone was the church and the church close. The beauty of a town’s church or cathedral granted a measure of grace into each person’s life.
Certainly the cathedrals were meant to inspire people and to frighten them into a properly respectful attitude toward God. But it is difficult to believe that they were not also intended to imbue people with the peace that beauty gives. The paintings in the French caves were meant to connect people to the divine as well as to other members of their community. The cathedrals of France and of the rest of medieval Europe must be seen as performing the same functions. Certainly the concept of the divine that Paleolothic people had was different than that of European Catholics at the height of the Church’s influence, but this does not negate the fact that in both cases humans created beauty in a place in which their neighbors could share it as a way of binding person to person, person to the divine, and each generation to the next.
Anyone who has ever stood in the cathedral at Chartres, for example – regardless of whether that person is a Catholic, a Muslim, a Shinto or a humanist – feels the connection to the past, understands in an essential way that he or she has the chance to participate in only a single chapter of the story of human history.
We once again skip over centuries in our artistic time machine to stand in front of Diego Rivera’s mural Allegory of California. We see in such a painting Rivera’s use of Primitivist tropes, which allowed the artist to straddle the distance between his own European training and his Mexican ethnicity; it also allowed him to exploit this difference. Rivera created bilingual paintings, speaking both to the past with his Primitivist evocations of Mayan and Aztec symbols and to the future with his Socialist references and his Cubism. The female figure that dominates the image is both a Mexican woman, with her dark skin, and European, with her blue eyes. She is a mestiza, a maternal figure that could be a mythological, maternal figure for the nation.
In painting, Rivers shifted the meaning and purpose of public art for the 20th century. While for millennia people had created works of artistic beauty in public places as ritual acts of obeisance to gods and as a way of binding communities together, Rivera (as well as others among his contemporaries) created public art that reaffirmed the barriers that modern life has established amongst different groups. In Allegory of California, there is a suggestion of an organic society that Modernist societies can only seek to emulate if they embrace the celebration of work that is central to socialism. In this mural, Rivera is both evoking the structure of a simpler society and suggesting that it is impossible to maintain this type of organic solidarity within the structure of capitalism. The center cannot hold, and rather than trying to create works of art that will rebuild that center, for much of the half of the 20th century, public artists made works that forced those fissures even wider.
While the political content of public art has lessened to some extent in more recent decades, it remains in general inherently more subversive than unifying. Rachel Whiteread’s 1993-4 sculpture, titled “House.” The concrete piece replaces what was once an actual Victorian home with a solid block that cannot be entered, that cannot give shelter, that cannot do any of the things that houses must be able to do to merit the title of house except to take up space in a neighborhood.
The audience must re-evaluate its relationship with the space: emptiness is now solid and a solid form is now empty. That which once surrounded, sheltered, and confined is now gone. And what was thought to be empty is now a visible, identifiable, and physical mass. Whiteread reveals, in fact, that nothing has always been something (http://www.artandculture.com/arts/artist?artistId=1171).
This is not a work that connects people to each other or to the artist – or to a space. Old houses are not in fact a “nothing” for people who live in their neighborhoods but – like those cave paintings or those cathedrals – connections to the past. This work of public art breaks that connections, separates the world into high-brow and low-brow spheres.
Guy Debord’s Situationist International movement is linked to the work of Diego Rivera for both are intent on using public art as a way to divide the world into historical periods. Unlike the cathedral that links people across time, the Rivera mural – or the Situationist work – slices time into moments. He disapproves of traditional aesthetics, traditional forms of art in which “The degree of aesthetic success is measured by a beauty inseparable from duration, and tending even to lay claim to eternity.” (http://members.optusnet.com.au/~rkeehan/si/theses.html).
The Situationist goal is immediate participation in a passionate abundance of life, through the variation of fleeting moments resolutely arranged. The success of these moments can only be their passing effect. Situationists consider cultural activity, from the standpoint of totality, as an experimental method for constructing daily life, which can be permanently developed with the extension of leisure and the disappearance of the division of labor (beginning with the division of artistic labor). (http://members.optusnet.com.au/~rkeehan/si/theses.html)/
Richard Serra’s “Titled Arc” is one of the most famous examples of modern public art because its installation in New York caused such an outcry that the work was actually dismantled and hauled away as scrap. Those who fought against the destruction of the piece argued that it was a great work of art. Those who wished to see it removed argued that it blocked their use of public space. While they were dismissed as plebeians by those in the artworld, their objections in fact had more than a kernel of legitimacy to them. The square in which the sculpture was placed was a public arena, a place of community. The Arc tore across it, transforming a shared space into a divided space. It this what public art should do? Perhaps not.
It should be noted that this is not the same thing as arguing that public art should not be controversy. Controversy is in fact a great way of brining a community together – of getting people out of their private lives and into dialogue with each other. Art in public places is different from art in private places and it should help to bring a community together – if not to the point of agreement at least to the point that people agree that dialogue is a good thing.
Maya Lin’s memorials do precisely this – and perhaps it is instructive that we call her works memorials rather than public art. Perhaps that purpose of bringing all of those who live together in a single moment together and then allowing them to see their connections to both the past and the future is something that we no longer wish to do with our public spaces or with our art. Perhaps our sense of community has been altered too much since Chartres, since Lascaux.
But the success of Lin’s works – especially the Vietnam War memorial and the Civil Rights memorial – suggest that we have in fact not quite given up on such a sense of community. We wish to come upon objects in our public spaces – whether we call them art or memorials – that tell us that we are not alone, that history and humanity stand with us.
Ucko, Peter. Paleolithic Cave Art. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990.
Are you busy and do not have time to handle your assignment? Are you scared that your paper will not make the grade? Do you have responsibilities that may hinder you from turning in your assignment on time? Are you tired and can barely handle your assignment? Are your grades inconsistent?
Whichever your reason is, it is valid! You can get professional academic help from our service at affordable rates. We have a team of professional academic writers who can handle all your assignments.
Students barely have time to read. We got you! Have your literature essay or book review written without having the hassle of reading the book. You can get your literature paper custom-written for you by our literature specialists.
Do you struggle with finance? No need to torture yourself if finance is not your cup of tea. You can order your finance paper from our academic writing service and get 100% original work from competent finance experts.
While psychology may be an interesting subject, you may lack sufficient time to handle your assignments. Don’t despair; by using our academic writing service, you can be assured of perfect grades. Moreover, your grades will be consistent.
Engineering is quite a demanding subject. Students face a lot of pressure and barely have enough time to do what they love to do. Our academic writing service got you covered! Our engineering specialists follow the paper instructions and ensure timely delivery of the paper.
In the nursing course, you may have difficulties with literature reviews, annotated bibliographies, critical essays, and other assignments. Our nursing assignment writers will offer you professional nursing paper help at low prices.
Truth be told, sociology papers can be quite exhausting. Our academic writing service relieves you of fatigue, pressure, and stress. You can relax and have peace of mind as our academic writers handle your sociology assignment.
We take pride in having some of the best business writers in the industry. Our business writers have a lot of experience in the field. They are reliable, and you can be assured of a high-grade paper. They are able to handle business papers of any subject, length, deadline, and difficulty!
We boast of having some of the most experienced statistics experts in the industry. Our statistics experts have diverse skills, expertise, and knowledge to handle any kind of assignment. They have access to all kinds of software to get your assignment done.
Writing a law essay may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle, especially when you need to know the peculiarities of the legislative framework. Take advantage of our top-notch law specialists and get superb grades and 100% satisfaction.
We have highlighted some of the most popular subjects we handle above. Those are just a tip of the iceberg. We deal in all academic disciplines since our writers are as diverse. They have been drawn from across all disciplines, and orders are assigned to those writers believed to be the best in the field. In a nutshell, there is no task we cannot handle; all you need to do is place your order with us. As long as your instructions are clear, just trust we shall deliver irrespective of the discipline.
Our essay writers are graduates with bachelor's, masters, Ph.D., and doctorate degrees in various subjects. The minimum requirement to be an essay writer with our essay writing service is to have a college degree. All our academic writers have a minimum of two years of academic writing. We have a stringent recruitment process to ensure that we get only the most competent essay writers in the industry. We also ensure that the writers are handsomely compensated for their value. The majority of our writers are native English speakers. As such, the fluency of language and grammar is impeccable.
There is a very low likelihood that you won’t like the paper.
Not at all. All papers are written from scratch. There is no way your tutor or instructor will realize that you did not write the paper yourself. In fact, we recommend using our assignment help services for consistent results.
We check all papers for plagiarism before we submit them. We use powerful plagiarism checking software such as SafeAssign, LopesWrite, and Turnitin. We also upload the plagiarism report so that you can review it. We understand that plagiarism is academic suicide. We would not take the risk of submitting plagiarized work and jeopardize your academic journey. Furthermore, we do not sell or use prewritten papers, and each paper is written from scratch.
You determine when you get the paper by setting the deadline when placing the order. All papers are delivered within the deadline. We are well aware that we operate in a time-sensitive industry. As such, we have laid out strategies to ensure that the client receives the paper on time and they never miss the deadline. We understand that papers that are submitted late have some points deducted. We do not want you to miss any points due to late submission. We work on beating deadlines by huge margins in order to ensure that you have ample time to review the paper before you submit it.
We have a privacy and confidentiality policy that guides our work. We NEVER share any customer information with third parties. Noone will ever know that you used our assignment help services. It’s only between you and us. We are bound by our policies to protect the customer’s identity and information. All your information, such as your names, phone number, email, order information, and so on, are protected. We have robust security systems that ensure that your data is protected. Hacking our systems is close to impossible, and it has never happened.
You fill all the paper instructions in the order form. Make sure you include all the helpful materials so that our academic writers can deliver the perfect paper. It will also help to eliminate unnecessary revisions.
Proceed to pay for the paper so that it can be assigned to one of our expert academic writers. The paper subject is matched with the writer’s area of specialization.
You communicate with the writer and know about the progress of the paper. The client can ask the writer for drafts of the paper. The client can upload extra material and include additional instructions from the lecturer. Receive a paper.
The paper is sent to your email and uploaded to your personal account. You also get a plagiarism report attached to your paper.
Delivering a high-quality product at a reasonable price is not enough anymore.
That’s why we have developed 5 beneficial guarantees that will make your experience with our service enjoyable, easy, and safe.
You have to be 100% sure of the quality of your product to give a money-back guarantee. This describes us perfectly. Make sure that this guarantee is totally transparent.Read more
Each paper is composed from scratch, according to your instructions. It is then checked by our plagiarism-detection software. There is no gap where plagiarism could squeeze in.Read more
Thanks to our free revisions, there is no way for you to be unsatisfied. We will work on your paper until you are completely happy with the result.Read more
Your email is safe, as we store it according to international data protection rules. Your bank details are secure, as we use only reliable payment systems.Read more
By sending us your money, you buy the service we provide. Check out our terms and conditions if you prefer business talks to be laid out in official language.Read more