Why I don’t warm to public art

I love Russian railway stations. The TimesOnline reports “the opening of a Moscow Metro station named after Fyodor Dostoevsky has been postponed after complaints that murals decorating the platform walls are too depressing. The images, drawn from the 19th-century novelist’s works, could prompt depressed commuters to kill themselves, critics say.

“One scene, right, depicts a man preparing to hit a woman with an axe while another lays dying at his feet — inspired by Rodion Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment”.

I’ve never been very keen on public art and this reinforces my prejudice.

Hat tip to Tyler Cowen.


4 Comments on “Why I don’t warm to public art”

  1. Bruce Dickson says:

    With public art, the key issue is not to confuse self-centred and often totally inappropriate or indulgent artistic works, best seen in galleries (if anywhere!), with truly wonderful and hopefully non mundane artworks that have been purpose-designed for a public context and specific location.

    At best the inspiration itself can even be sourced from the chosen environment itself … as with the Sydney Opera House, a form of sculptural public artwork in its own right (taking this principle to its limits) and visibly inspired by its spectacular site on Bennelong Point and Sydney Harbour. And yes, simple fruit peelings may also have played a role too!

    The main point being that truly great public art is always about context, relevance, design harmony (or possibly ‘sensitive contrast’),above all ‘capturing the public imagination’ and last but not least … achieving the right balance between unchecked & uncompromised creativity AND some truly worthy response to a community’s ‘ethos’.

    It should never be forgotten that it is – in reality – something of a special privilege to create a ‘public’ artwork. After all, it is the community or ‘public’ that has to live with it, in a way not true of art found within a far more private ‘gallery experience’ (where the observer has more deliberately chosen to engage with the experience).

    Most uninspiring, and yes annoying, public artworks are usually the result of some serious basic failings and mistakes. These include:

    1. Totally wrong choice of artist/s – e.g. non-community minded/self indulgent individualists, insufficient talent, arrogant outlook, etc.
    2. Bad and misguided use of available resources – e.g. trying to create too many cheaper and/or lesser artworks, rather than one or two truly great ones – a bulk over substance and ironically non-impact over impact issue.
    3. Falsely thinking that ‘community made artworks’ (e.g. any old mural stuck thoughtlessly on a wall) should just automatically – or by definition- be regarded as possessing an artistic standard that is worthy of public display. The underlying failure here being that ultimately aesthetic and other artistic standards will not matter as much as the participation itself. Why not set out to achieve both?
    4. As a related issue here, allowing a project to proceed without the guiding hand (and knowledge of key development processes) that an experienced and TRULY gifted ‘community-minded community artist’ can provide. Their job is to know the desired scope and limits of public inputs and guide the work towards final artistic success in a sensitive handed way. In other words, this project artist’s role is to ensure that these community contributions remain cohesive and are also technically manifested in ways that served to both enhance the ‘artistic end result’ and fulfil the initiative’s wider aims.
    5. Alternatively, thinking that just taking any artist’s studio-conceived or manufactured creation and blowing it up a few times in scale and dumping it in an entirely foreign public site somehow makes sense and is an appropriate way to behave.
    6. Also failure to consider the gains to be made for creating great public art by the conscious application of collaborative processes to some meaningful extent or other – e.g. working with other artists, landscapers, engineers, various categories of community participants, etc.
    7. The works just suffer from a real lack of imagination, are way TOO safe and predictable and do not capture anyone’s imagination – meaning everyone involved loses (including the community, the artists, the project leaders and all relevant funding agencies). Normally it is success that breeds further success. Great outcomes will normally result in greater future interest and support … and act as a catalyst for other initiatives. Mediocrity, dullness, public rejection and failure can only breed discontent, ‘prejudice’, apathy and sadly feed the ‘told you so’ knockers of the world.
    8. The project is subject to too much caution and misdirected constraint. A project’s artistic vision should not be constrained – the level of innovation, imagination and ‘difference’ never restricted or prejudged. Truly creative works are not created this way. The only true test is to open the door to any concept that fits the project’s original mission for the site and then judge the resultant ‘concept options’ purely by the extent to which they are found to genuinely ‘capture anyone’s imaginations’ – when deliberately pre-tested in NON-compromised form. A team’s work in progress should not be subjected to unduly premature outside judgements. But any ultimate concept options should definitely be put to the test before being proceeded with. At that stage feedback is valuable and mistakes can be avoided. Experience shows that it is often the lacklustre predictable public artworks that fail to move anyone that are the true flops. On the other hand, it is more often than not the more challenging but imaginative works that will succeed in provoking/stimulating a meaningful personal response in their beholders. (Being less predictable and hopefully more ‘layered’ in content, they have the capacity to keep being rediscovered, refreshed by new interpretations and insights.)

    When undertaken in such imaginative and visionary style through the use of an outstanding artist or artistic team (preferably working in association with the community), there is every possibility that a great public artwork will also possess the potential impact to become a worthy local ‘icon’ and an exciting public attraction (let alone local cultural symbol) in its own right.

    And at best, those with the greatest impact do not copy other places’ ideas, but instead set out to create an absolutely original design outcome.

    Finally in relation to Alan’s sense of ‘prejudice’, artworks by their very nature can stir emotions ‘for and against’ (the personal taste and subjectivity issue).

    But any controversy potentially generated can also become both astrength and a very healthy outcome. Daring to be different potentially challenges people in a multiple worthy ways.

    Public artworks – that DO successfully stir the imagination – can contribute in many special ways to our quality of life, our perception of reality, sense of place and personal pleasure.

    As already suggested, a work which did not stir any feelings and emotions would most likely be very bland or predictable, and would stand little chance of creating lasting (and potentially ‘timeless’) public interest.

    But, in deference to Alan’s viewpoint, this is not the same as saying that community feelings do not matter – some ill conceived artworks (and there are many) unquestionably do become uninspiring, undesirable and best removed ‘blots on the landscape’.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Bruce, thanks for your much more sophisticated analysis than my throwaway comment deserves.

      I’m lukewarm about public art because most of what I’ve seen I don’t like although,yes, there is of course the occasional but all too rare good piece (I think some of the historic Russian railway stations, from the days when the “art” and the architecture were integrated, are magnificent).

      I think the “taste” of the sort of organisations that commission public art is very different to mine – they commission stuff that reminds me of the appalling street theatre pilloried by The Chaser. And I also think that good ideas might get the life squeezed out of them by the bureacratic processes usually involved in selecting the works that go in public spaces.

      For my money, architecture and urban design are the kind of “public art” I’m happy to settle for. I particularly dislike the idea that projects in Docklands are levied 1% of their value so that public art can be provided. Let the architects create the visual landscape, I say. I’d prefer to see the 1% used for social housing.

  2. Moss says:

    +1 on the integration of architecture and art Alan. Total insensitivity to context is a recipe for disaster.

    Though of course, by far the best art is that which is unbounded by bureacratic processes: Street Art! And doesn’t Melbourne have some wonderful examples?

  3. […] requires 1.5% of total construction cost as a contribution for public art. As I’ve indicated before, I’m not kindly disposed toward levying developments to fund public art. In my view the building […]


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