When I make an artwork I often talk about the importance of having a ‘door’ in the work ie something which will have a connection to (or be recognisable by) a general public. Choosing to ‘enter’ that door offers the audience the opportunity to delve deeper into the themes of the work….but what is of paramount importance to me is that the presence of the ‘door’ issues an invitation – in other words people feel included rather than excluded . I would consider a work to be a failure if people were to feel that they were denied access because the work exuded a coded message of artworld exclusivity.
I set out to make the Sacrificial Materials Blog a place with the same ethos…however, please accept my apologies – I need to unpack some thoughts that have been fermenting for a while. I want to look a bit deeper at the idea of audience and intention within public art…….it could well get a bit geeky as I try to unpick some of the paradoxes, jargon and vested interests within this strange world…..apologies I hope there might be a doorway and some light by the end.
I have lost count of the conferences. seminars and symposia that I have attended which have identified the ‘problem’ with public art as being the term ‘public art’ itself. The artworld is a strange place if it were a person it would what Scots call a nippy sweety ie someone who is sweetness and light to your face and then vicious when your back is turned. There is an laudable code amongst artists that everyone has the absolute right to make the art that they want to make – but this code is what paralyses useful discussion at public art gatherings – as long as we make no differentiation between different forms of practice in public space then key terms of critical reference will remain impossible to define. My contention is that a critical forum is vital to the long-term development and vitality of any practice and currently it is lacking in the kind of public art that I choose to practice
The lines that I am currently thinking along suggest 3 distinct strands of practice in public[i]. Here the earlier analogy of the door becomes useful again. Please note that what I am talking about here is the intent behind the work ie that any categorisation would be begin with what artist/commissioner set out to do rather than begin from the ‘visible’ product of their endeavours.
Category 1 – All Door (and nothing beyond the door)
|'Eric' statue - Morecambe, Lancashire, UK|
The type of work that is effectively ‘urban entertainment or decoration’ eg Eric Morecambe statue (Morecambe) or Desperate Dan (Dundee). Problematically - this is the kind of work that the general public typically expect to see under the label –public art. I do not propose discussing this area of practice much further…generally those that are involved in it’s production have no illusion that they are involved in a contemporary art debate. Absolutely, there is a place for this kind of work – but for the purposes of this discussion it is important to make a distinction between ‘All Door’ work and work in public space that aims to engage an audience in more than a ‘one liner of recognition’ or a ‘pleasing aesthetic sensation of colour or texture).
Category 2 – Door with something behind
|'Cabot Circus Cantata' Neville Gabie was artist in residence to a major retail development in Bristol for 3 years|
This would be the kind of work that is made for a public situation or context and is developed with a belief in, and understanding of the potential of contemporary art practice to become part of the real and active momentum of that context or place.
Category 3 – No Door just lots of ‘behind’
|'How Not to Cookbook' Aleksandra Mir - Collective Gallery, Edinburgh|
Work that is primarily conceived for ‘artworld’ consumption but has a ‘public’ element. Typically this would be a project undertaken through the agency of a gallery that involves working, in part, outwith the gallery eg gathering a public response to a proposition or inviting the public to partake in a staged meal. The primary aim in such projects is to use the public context as part of the artwork rather than to conceive the artwork for the public context.[ii]
What I am NOT trying to do is make any form of value judgement about the different types of practice above…..I believe that each has an absolute right to exist and a valuable place in the world. Rather, what I am seeking to do is establish a different quality of intent that is inherent in each typology ie what the artist/agency set out to do. I believe that if we can agree that the intent is different, then that intent becomes a crucial foundation of critical discussion about any project or work. In the field of ‘public art’ (or what I describe above as Door with something behind) I believe that practice is suffering from the lack of a proper critical forum because there is no lingua franca ie so many bases need to be covered in framing the terms of reference of “Public Art’ that any useful debate becomes lost in the fog of generality.
|Watershed+ (Calgary and its Water) Sans façon - lead artists|
I was recently given the following definition of public art by Lucy Lippard (thanks Mike McCallum)
'My own short definition of public art: accessible art of any species that cares about, challenges, involves and consults the audience for or with whom it is made, respecting community and environment. The other stuff-most of what fuels public controversy and the mass media's rhetoric on public art is still private art; no matter how big and exposed and intrusive or hyped it may be. Permanent or ephemeral, object and performance, preferably interdisciplinary,
democratic, sometimes functional or didactic, a public art exists in the hearts, minds, ideologies and education of its audience as well in their physical, sensuous experience.'
I find this a wonderfully clear and visceral statement of what is different about public art – but there is still a problem in usage of the terms ‘private’ and ‘audience’ when referring to a ‘non’ public art. A problem in as much as surely the audience for gallery art is a ‘public’ too?
By contrast the Scottish Arts Council’s[iii] definition of public art could not be more stark in the way that it does not even seem to have the slightest self-awareness of its contribution to the choking fog of generality that I feel is preventing public art (particularly in Scotland) becoming the best it possibly could be:
‘We regard public art as creative activity that takes place or is situated in a public space that is not a traditional art space (for example, not a gallery or theatre etc)'.
I have even heard this stated more simply as ‘anything that does not happen in a gallery’
The hidden meta-narrative here is the primacy of the ‘artist’ – according to the Scottish Arts Council, artists ‘traditionally’ work in Galleries[iv] - and when they venture out of galleries they make something different – they make ‘public’ art. This is nonsense – in most cases they make the same thing ie ‘art for a gallery audience’. The difference comes when the artist becomes something different –a public artist. The public artist makes the kind of work described by Lucy Lippard above.
Being charitable, I would surmise that the Scottish Arts Council’s definition is based on their willingness to support gallery initiatives that ‘extend the audience’ for visual art by venturing into ‘non-traditional spaces’. Whilst this is laudable – by lumping this type of practice together with art made by public artists, the problem of critical reference points within the field is exacerbated.
This failure to grasp the nettle, by Scottish Arts Council, is disastrous for the public artist. By refusing to distinguish between the public artist and the artist who sometimes shows work in ‘non traditional spaces’ the key agency for visual art in the country is perpetuating the old myth about the primacy of ‘pure’ studio practice (the kind that makes work shown in galleries) and condemns the practice of the public artist as the kind of work that ‘real artists’ have to do occasionally to pay the bills.
There are artists (I am one) who view the gallery not as the ‘holy grail’ but rather as only one of an infinite number of possible contexts for which to make our work. The use of the word for is crucial – this is fundamentally about making work that regards the context/situation as paramount and carries a responsibility towards that situation[v]
I enjoy galleries and have had some of the most fundamentally spiritual experiences of my life with art in galleries – but I can say the same of music. film literature and even fishing – but as with these others, galleries and ‘artworld art’ are not my primary fields of operation.
|'Home Ornaments' Daphne Wright- new housing Gorbals, Glasgow|
I would argue that a radical split in artists began around such diverse trajectories as the later practice of Joseph Beuys, the theoretical position of the Situationists, the Green movement and Punk rock. This is the line of descent that has bred the contemporary public artist – whose primary concern is not ‘art making’ but rather to use art practice as an ‘openspace’ within which can coexist insight, creativity and connectivity with other disciplines and movements all connected with a specific context (and through integrity in that specificity a connection to the larger movement of ideas).
It is the intent of the public artist to get involved at first hand with place and people that differs radically from another artist who places their work in public or uses the public as a form of additional ‘medium’ in their work. It is this intent that I believe offers the key to an effective critical forum and developmental strategy for public art – to look first at what the artist intended and their means of acting on that intent – rather than to start with the art ‘product’ and work backwards from the ‘effect’ of the product.
|'7000 Oaks' Joseph Beuys|
I believe that we need to be brave and stake out the territory for public art as something that stands apart from ‘urban decoration’ at one extreme and ‘gallery art outside the gallery” at the other. Only then will we create the conditions for a useful and productive critical language.
[i] When I was developing this terms of this discussion I had a chat with old friends and outstanding public artists Sans façon – while they stopped short of trying to make a critical distinction between different areas of practice they recognised the 3 categories that I describe – but they refer to them as ‘all public and no art (but maybe a bit of craft)’, ‘public art’ and ‘all art and no real public’
[ii] Of course, it can be argued that all art is conceived for the ultimate benefit of humankind….however, the point I am making is that this necessarily abstract notion of affecting consciousness through aesthetic appreciation and critical debate is different from the aim of using art to directly engage with and have an effect on an actual context.
[iii] The Scottish Arts Council merged with Scottish Screen at the beginning of 2010 to become Creative Scotland – the new organisation has not, as yet, published an update of the old SAC definition of Public Art.
[iv] my discussion here is primarily about visual art rather than the performing arts
[v] NB – taking a stance critical of a context can be equally valid in this regard…this is not about ‘doing good’ in the patronising sense but in the holistic creative sense of fully engaging with place and people as an artist.