public ART is art FOR the public



“It is not impractical to consider seriously changing the rules of the game when the game is clearly killing you.” M. Scott Peck,


Through involvement with a local arts group I recently received excited notification of an offer of funding for a potentially ‘prestigious’ public art commission in my nearest town. A substantial amount of money had been secured by the newly elected Mayor of the town for the creation of a sculptural piece to acknowledge and celebrate the life of a historic figure associated with the area. The man in question while being an MP for 30 years and helping establish the town’s port and council during his lifetime nearly 500 years ago, also killed someone in a swordfight when we was 19, quelled an Irish Rebellion (single-handedly?!) and also hung a Roman Catholic Priest or two! Hardly a savoury or inspirational character by today’s standards!?

So, while appreciating the hard work and diligence of the arts practitioners to secure such sizable funding, and the well meaning generosity of the elected dignitary to channel public moneys towards the local arts community, it was with some distaste and troubled conscience that I began to wonder on the social and economic appropriateness of such art-some activity. While seriously questioning the contemporary relevance of celebrating such a character it is also important to remember not only the difficulty that locally based arts organisations are presently facing but also the number of socially important bodies that have presently had to close due to lack of public funding and support. In fact the amount of money offered could easily have supported a long established local arts festival, which could not run for another year because of a failed funding application, and which has not only provided income and creative experience for a large number of artists but also for a broad cross-section of the associated community.

 Time Landscape, New York City, Alan Sonfist 1976

 “Public Monuments have traditionally celebrated events in human history – acts or humans of importance to the whole community. Now, as we perceive our dependence on nature, the concept of community expands to include non-human elements, and civic monuments should honour and celebrate the life and acts of another part of the community: natural phenomena.” 

from Public Monuments, an essay by Alan Sonfist, included in ARTFUL ECOLOGIES 2006.

 In traditional and conventional understandings of public art, such ‘artistic’ statements of posterity have served to express, and celebrate, the power, the financial and cultural security, and hence the dominant attitude of a community and its leaders. By today’s standards and understanding however such philanthropic misdemeanours are simply anathema to the dislocation of our cultural and financial insensitivity and insecurity. In this ‘age of austerity’, this societal and political constraint of our public moneys, surely we should be using such scarce resources, and utilizing such vast creative expertise for that matter, to implement initiatives, artistic or otherwise, that may promote and serve the well-being of a larger part of the whole community rather than just the misinformed but inflated egos of the powers that be, elected or not.

 Orly Orbach – Wishing Wall, part of residency in South London, 2009-10

So, what role or function might this public sculpture, produced for example by a single artist (from within or without this community) play within that same community? What benefit might a public ‘sculpture’, a carefully crafted and positioned objet d’art bring to the community who have ultimately paid for it through their taxes? And what message might it give to the community not only of its governance but also of the ethics and social integrity of the artist who creates it, and hence of the arts in general?

In contemporary understanding and application of the arts, and especially in light of the social and ecological climate in which we find ourselves, any action that merely aggrandizes the past and established institutions of power is quite frankly, in my humble opinion, immoral. The rich, varied and intelligently sensitive applications of socially egalitarian options now available to artists within the sphere of public art, such as those practiced by the likes of Joseph Beuys, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, Orly Orbach, Adrian Piper, WochenKlausur, Suzanne Lacey and Mark Dion, to name but a very few, only serve to emphasize the appropriately dynamic role that the arts may play within a society or community. Such actions may not leave us with a the legacy of a permanent object, set in stone so to speak, anchoring us in some dubious past, but they do gently and fluidly enforce and enable the essence of community and relationship which allows any society to function with a healthy and creative resilience and vitality. Surely it is more fitting, and politically adroit, to leave a legacy of potential and equanimity, and a sense of self-empowerment, in a community that we profess to serve than an aesthetically pleasing (but expensively inappropriate) object that people will most likely come to ignore, or at worst resent and despise, and that like all things will eventually turn to dust.

 barnstaple new bridge roundabout sculpture vandalized, 2011

In my own area, I only have to look back a few years for a public art project which still ‘raises the hackles’ of most residents. The local authority chose, without adequate public consultation or involvement and in a time of similar financial hardship I hasten to add, to spend a little over £100,000 on the awkward installation of a number of large stones (incidentally from many miles away) in the centre of a new roundabout, apparently to celebrate the completion of an ‘improved’ transport infrastructure plan and a new bridge. While the collection of crudely positioned megaliths carry a certain aesthetic interest and weight, referring aptly to the geological majesty of the region, the means and manners by which the project was managed, implemented and installed have left a legacy of disbelief, mistrust and anger towards both the local authority and the arts as a whole.

While such misinformation and insensitivity surrounding the arts and its relationship to the social and ecological community (within which it functions as a potentially catalytic and fertile means toward holistic development) persists, and is understandable (considering the level of vested interest inherent in both our political and educational establishments to maintain the status quo), it only serves to reaffirm the disrespect and lack of financial support the cultural sector currently experiences. If we were however to begin to propose and embody those principles and practices of social and ecological integrity which provoke a society toward health, vitality and dynamism for all its inhabitants, then those in power might begin to recognize, appreciate and support the evident and intrinsic potential that the creative arts may represent.

 Joseph Beuys’s first tree planted in front of the Museum Fridericianum (‘7,000 oaks’ Kassel, Germany 1982) 

“Every human being is an artist, a freedom being, called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking and structures that shape and inform our lives”

Joseph Beuys

With reasonable hindsight, to create such a hullaballoo about what seems a relatively small amount of money – some of us might not think twice about spending the same on a family car or a new kitchen – may seem a little extreme but I still feel it is of the utmost importance to highlight the potential of creative and socially engaged contemporary arts practice within a community, and also to bring to peoples attention how such small amounts of funding if carefully and appropriately managed may leave a legacy of responsible, cumulative and relevant action for many years to come. As artists it is the strength of our actions and integrity to such social goals that dictate the way society might respond towards us and hence the way society responds towards itself. Art as a function of any society has a great deal of power – the power to inspire and transform, to educate and empower, and the power to heal and restore, as well as to corrupt and destroy – it is for us as artists to choose to use that power wisely for the good of all.


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