Essays

Public Art Versus Public Good

Richard Serra, “Tilted Arc” (1981) (image from pbs.org)

Over the past week, I’ve been writing about art’s environmental impact and how that factors in to perceived artistic quality. What the debate boils down to for me is the question of whether art is worth its cost of production, and how we analyze a piece of art’s efficacy or value.

There are several ways that we analyze whether or not a piece of art is “good”. Traditionally, the artist’s body of work, the stature of the work itself and its provenance are all considered, the artistic merit of the artist’s ideas. But with different forms of art come different methods of evaluation. When we talking about public art or outdoor installations, we must factor in another aspect of the work’s impact: how does the work effect the public whose space and resources it occupies? Since public art faces scrutiny on a greater scale than most collector-driven contemporary art, it has a greater audience to please, and a greater responsibility towards transparency.

Public art is judged on how effective it is as public art, not necessarily how revelatory or innovative it is within the history of art. The best pieces mingle both efficacy and innovation, but I would argue that a good piece of public art doesn’t need to be revolutionary. It does, however, have to come in on the positive side of the balance sheet when we weigh its cost versus its impact, environmentally and socially, as well as artistically. In my ideal, the best public art contributes just as much to the public good as it does the history of art.

Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” (1981) is an oft-cited example of public art against the public good. The sculpture, a 120-foot long and 12-foot high wall of curving steel commissioned by the US government, divided New York City’s Federal Plaza in two and almost immediately drew the ire of those who physically used the plaza. After a court hearing and a refusal by Serra to have the piece moved, “Tilted Arc” was removed, essentially because it didn’t function to the needs of the public. Serra was quoted at the time, “I don’t think it is the function of art to be pleasing,” and “Art is not democratic. It is not for the people.”

Maya Lin, “Vietname Veterans Memorial” (1982) (image from pbs.org)

Sorry Serra, but a piece that’s meant for such a public place is going to have to bow somewhat to the requirements of those it serves. The context of MoMA’s galleries or a collector’s home is entirely different from an urban square, but then Serra doesn’t make any distinction. Take that in relation to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a similarly minimal wall, but one meant to act as a monument. Within the public frame of reference, this is an object meant to obstruct space, meant to provide a moment to reflect, unlike Serra’s intrusion into the square. The differing reception of these two pieces lays in their different relationships to public good and the functioning of the mundane utility of their work in the installation environment.

I think this process is similarly how we should be evaluating installation works like Christo and Jeanne Claude or Olafur Eliasson’s public interventions. A river covered in fabric is clearly an interesting work of art and a worthwhile visual experience, but in the end does it serve the public that it is meant to? One of the chief complaints against the duo’s “Over the River” is that it might be nice for a weekend getaway for art worlders, but the problems it causes for locals make it, on the whole, useless. Compare that to New York City’s “Gates,” a relatively unobtrusive installation that ends up beautifying and popularizing functional urban space rather than interfering with it.

Evaluations of Eliasson’s “Waterfalls” have rested largely on the tourism dollars they supposedly brought to the city. But does the environmental impact and carbon footprint of erecting the sculptures outweigh their economic and artistic impact? Given the pieces’ lukewarm reception, I’d say yes. But isn’t art all about failing grandiosely and learning from it? Judging artworks like this brings an element of the profane, the mundane, to contemporary art’s ivory tower, but is, I think, a valuable angle of analysis.

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