Inspirational Monstrosity – Is Public Art for the public?

“Orbit” by Anish Kapoor – the most recent protagonist in the story of the public vs. Public art. Image courtesy of, click for link.

Public Art can be a contentious issue for several reasons. Often people find public artworks to be eyesores, as seen in the recent backlash from the completion of Anish Kapoor’s Olympic Park sculpture. At other times public art commissions are unambitious and lead to poor artworks lining roads or sitting in village greens. Much Street Art, in particular graffiti, is destroyed as quickly as it is created, and is bemoaned by many as being aggressive or just ugly.

It is little surprise that Public Art suffers some degree of outspoken criticism. While gallery art takes its own share of lambasting, it is still safely ensconced within the white cube, the traditional art space where the public visit less often. Public Art on the other hand is displayed in the public domain, most often installed as a permanent fixture. This leaves more room for vocal criticism, and the public response to Public Art can be outspoken and fierce. In 1989 Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was removed from its home at Federal Plaza, New York, after numerous complaints including how the work attracted graffiti, distracted workers and obstructed the public walkway.

“Tilted Arc” while it was still installed. Image courtesy of, click for link.

Tilted Arc was an early work that helped spark the ongoing debate about public funding for Public Art. Much of the finger-pointing is directed toward the use of government funds to include artworks as a necessity during construction, as with Percent for Art schemes worldwide. There can also be something said for the unambitious quality of much of the work that is made for these schemes. It is difficult for artists to embed strong messages in artworks that are being commissioned by groups who do not want political or social agendas attached to their buildings or roads. As a result the works can be largely tame and unimaginative – “safe” art for lack of a better term.

Serra‘s tactful response to the public outcry over Tilted Arc was to declare that “art is not democratic” and that the public should not be involved. As avant-garde as this response is, it has a historical basis when observing the patrons (public and private) in the past who have supported the arts. Although Public Art is in the public realm it is funded by large bodies – either governmental or private institutions – who can afford major commissions.

Street art by WATTTS, image courtesy of Wikipedia. Click for link.

Over the last two decades Serra’s opinion has been put to the test with the popular rise of Street Art. The 90s saw the urban landscape became a canvas for a disillusioned youth to decorate. Graffiti and Street Art began to represent a popular “people-first” way of displaying art in the public realm, although crucially without funders.

Banksy and company became the forerunners of a new movement that began to push social messages and ideas, using the urban sphere as a forum. It is interesting to see the dichotomy between Serra’s statement about the public role in the creation of art and the boisterous public response to Jacek Tylicki, Shepard Fairey and others who use the urban landscape as a space to create public discourse.

The Spire in Dublin, although often publicly criticised, was praised for its long-term design ingenuity in features like its self-cleaning mechanism.

Due to the fact that most street art is not welcomed in its setting, there is also a difference in terms of time between the Public Art of the “high art” variety and the Street Art alternative. Street art is made to be transient, and even powerful and appreciative works like those of Conor Harrington are more often than not destroyed soon after they are made. With public art longevity is included in the design features of the works – most are made from robust materials and built to stand the test of time.

Whether the transient street art is a reflection of the more transient nature of life today or simply a more permanent stage that is under construction remains to be seen. As shown in the recent hilarious documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop, street art is gaining a value in high art society too. It still makes me giggle when I see chunks of broken-off wall with Banksy images spray-painted on display in commercial art galleries.

Image courtesy of Banksy’s website, click for link

But the movement of street art from the street to the gallery seems to be a backward progression – granted it offers an income to artists who had little to gain from continuing to create street art, but it does then enclose the artworks back in the white cube where discursive art was beginning to emerge from.

So there emerges a possible trend.

Public Art is not for the public. Street Art is leaving the streets. Is it about time that we saw gallery art in supermarkets?

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4 thoughts on “Inspirational Monstrosity – Is Public Art for the public?”

  1. Terrific article – very thought provoking.
    The other trend which seems to be happening here is the necessity to include some community input into public art, whether it is constructed directly by the public, or based on ideas from them, and constructed by a professional craftsperson. I guess this gets around some of the opposition to public art, but perhaps makes it more mainstream, and less adventurous?
    My feeling is that public art, good or bad, all helps to make spaces unique and distinctive within what can be a rather bland urban setting.

    1. Hey Moon, thanks for the pingback!
      This is a really interesting article that brings up a lot of points that I haven’t heard before. I must admit I approach [visual] art with the bias of a musician, which is also considered an art, but has a much stronger emphasis on performance. I love and embrace the freedom of expression, but an artist without a welcoming audience is a hobbyist, not a professional. But then again maybe I’m just too practically minded (nods — yes this is true).

      Also, I have actually seen gallery art in supermarkets — not originals, but prints. It seems that art can not exist in a totally separate sphere from Capitalism.

      1. No problem on the pingback abtwixt – I might use that post again in one that I have coming up unless I decide to change the direction of that one. It really got my thought-juices bubbling, and sorry it wasn’t better credited but it was stuck in the middle of a flowing paragraph – next time I promise.

        For my own part I approach visual art from the point of view of a visual artist, musician and designer so I tend to get torn asunder when I consider the various opinions or objectives of each school. There has been a library of stuff written on the idea of audience (audience development, engagement, collaboration etc.) – katkasia touched on a small part of it in the comment above. I am of the same opinion as you in my own practice though; art needs an audience.

        But I also see the relevance of an artist choosing not to have one or to abandon the one that they have (take Bob Dylan aka “Judas” as a musical example!). On that note I am also a big fan of Richard Serra’s work, as I am of Anish Kapoor’s, I just think that the dialogue with the public is interesting and often misunderstood (take Rachel Whiteread’s “House” as an artistic example) and that street art is filling a bit of a void there.

    2. Couldn’t agree more katkasia – Public Art is an identifier (this post was linked to the previous one, as all my articles attempt to do, which might explain a little) and it’s always great, even when it’s terrible!

      And yes, I considered delving into public collaboration here but I was worried I would start writing a novel. It was difficult enough to keep this post short, And I think there has been enough literature written on the subject of public art and collaborative art, so I wanted to try to add a new element by looking at public art against street art as a mode of communication, taking Serra’s comments as a base. I actually work for a company that develops collaborative community projects just like this – I’ll keep that stuff for another post 🙂

      I could write about this forever and still never get started.

      And thanks for the comment & the compliment!

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