Public Art and Public Spaces Empirical Study

Public Art and Public Spaces

As long as there has been art there has been public art. But this does not mean that public art has always meant the same thing to the people who made it or the community that it was made for. This paper examines four moments in history and four specific artworks as a way of examining how the function of art in public places has changed as well as the ways in which it has not changed, over the centuries. This paper begins at a moment long before many people would place the beginnings of public art – with the Paleolithic drawings on the walls in French caves and ending with the works of Maya Lin. As each moment in time presents a different form of public art, no single, overriding definition of the term will be offered here. Rather, each moment in history and each example of art will require its own definition of public art.

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When we look at the Paleolithic art of France, we are struck by how similar it is in many ways to far more modern art. For example, one of the most striking elements of the cave art of France is the importance of different animals in these paintings, a fact that links this most ancient human art to modern realist traditions. And yet to appreciate this ancient art fully, we must not simply compare it to modern. We must rather try to understand the importance of cave paintings to life during the Paleolithic in what is now France, and so must look beyond the cave walls themselves to the world inhabited by these early artists to ask ourselves why it is they painted these images for others to see. For it seems clear that these images were intended to be seen by others. We may think of them as being semi-private – hidden away in caves from public view. But this reflects our own view of caves rather than that held by people who lived them, seeking shelter in them everyday. These paintings were not private in the sense that paintings hanging in an individual’s home are private today. Rather, they are analogous to the paintings that we might see in the lobby of a courtroom or an office building; that is, they were equivalent to public art today.

The world inhabited by European humans in the Paleolithic Period, just before the final retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age (15,000-10,000 BC) was very different indeed than our own, and thus it should be striking to us how very similar in many ways the public art that these people created is to our own. When these first-known examples of art created to be shared by a community were made, most of Europe was peopled by small bands of nomadic hunters preying on migratory herds of reindeer, cattle, bison, horses, mammoth, and other animals whose bodies provided them with food, clothing, and the raw materials for tools and weapons. That these primitive hunters decorated the walls of their caves with large paintings of the animals that were so important for their physical well-being should hardly be surprising.

What exactly did these paintings mean? Ideas about that have in fact changed dramatically over time, reflecting not so much new knowledge received about the actual lives of Paleolithic peoples but rather changing modern ideas about the relationship between all humans and art, as Ucko (1990) argues. During the 19th century, scholars of Paleolithic art argued for a purely aesthetic interpretation of Paleolithic art, believing that the earliest human artists were like those that they idealized in their own time who were creating “art for art’s sake.” This may or may not have been true; the archaeological record is simply too incomplete for us to be able to determine the motivations of artists creating paintings and sculptures so many thousands of years ago. (It is also arguable that artists working in the 19th century were not themselves making art for art’s sake only but had mixed motivations.)

Some nineteenth-century scholars argued that the cave paintings should be seen as attempts to influence reality, that the images painted on cave walls (and this would perhaps have been especially true of the portrayals of animals) had a totemistic value. In other words, people painted animals to help hunters have better luck in the hunt, either in terms of capturing prey or in terms of surviving the hunt without injury. In a similar vein, other important types of Paleolithic that seem to celebrate female fertility, such as the Venus of Wallendorf, might have been used as totems that would help to ensure the continuing existence of the tribe itself.

There are clear connections to the ritual element of these artworks to work in our own times. These first examples of public art were probably at least in part designed both to fill people’s eyes with beauty and to help them feel a connection to something like the divine as well as a connection to both past and future. Those who made these paintings in sheltered spaces would have expected, or at least hoped, that they would endure.

We now turn our time machine many years into the future, to the Middle Ages. While most of what we think of as art – paintings, sculptures, tapestries – were in private hands, secured inside the domestic spaces of the wealthy – there were massive public art building programs in the form of the cathedrals of this era. We may not be inclined to think of these cathedrals as being “real” public art, but again we must be careful to consider how it is that we have constructed this category in which space that is publicly claimed and artistic enterprises overlap each other. In the Middle Ages in Europe there were many spaces from which the majority of the population was barred. One of the few public places that was open to everyone was the church and the church close. The beauty of a town’s church or cathedral granted a measure of grace into each person’s life.

Certainly the cathedrals were meant to inspire people and to frighten them into a properly respectful attitude toward God. But it is difficult to believe that they were not also intended to imbue people with the peace that beauty gives. The paintings in the French caves were meant to connect people to the divine as well as to other members of their community. The cathedrals of France and of the rest of medieval Europe must be seen as performing the same functions. Certainly the concept of the divine that Paleolothic people had was different than that of European Catholics at the height of the Church’s influence, but this does not negate the fact that in both cases humans created beauty in a place in which their neighbors could share it as a way of binding person to person, person to the divine, and each generation to the next.

Anyone who has ever stood in the cathedral at Chartres, for example – regardless of whether that person is a Catholic, a Muslim, a Shinto or a humanist – feels the connection to the past, understands in an essential way that he or she has the chance to participate in only a single chapter of the story of human history.

We once again skip over centuries in our artistic time machine to stand in front of Diego Rivera’s mural Allegory of California. We see in such a painting Rivera’s use of Primitivist tropes, which allowed the artist to straddle the distance between his own European training and his Mexican ethnicity; it also allowed him to exploit this difference. Rivera created bilingual paintings, speaking both to the past with his Primitivist evocations of Mayan and Aztec symbols and to the future with his Socialist references and his Cubism. The female figure that dominates the image is both a Mexican woman, with her dark skin, and European, with her blue eyes. She is a mestiza, a maternal figure that could be a mythological, maternal figure for the nation.

In painting, Rivers shifted the meaning and purpose of public art for the 20th century. While for millennia people had created works of artistic beauty in public places as ritual acts of obeisance to gods and as a way of binding communities together, Rivera (as well as others among his contemporaries) created public art that reaffirmed the barriers that modern life has established amongst different groups. In Allegory of California, there is a suggestion of an organic society that Modernist societies can only seek to emulate if they embrace the celebration of work that is central to socialism. In this mural, Rivera is both evoking the structure of a simpler society and suggesting that it is impossible to maintain this type of organic solidarity within the structure of capitalism. The center cannot hold, and rather than trying to create works of art that will rebuild that center, for much of the half of the 20th century, public artists made works that forced those fissures even wider.

While the political content of public art has lessened to some extent in more recent decades, it remains in general inherently more subversive than unifying. Rachel Whiteread’s 1993-4 sculpture, titled “House.” The concrete piece replaces what was once an actual Victorian home with a solid block that cannot be entered, that cannot give shelter, that cannot do any of the things that houses must be able to do to merit the title of house except to take up space in a neighborhood.

The audience must re-evaluate its relationship with the space: emptiness is now solid and a solid form is now empty. That which once surrounded, sheltered, and confined is now gone. And what was thought to be empty is now a visible, identifiable, and physical mass. Whiteread reveals, in fact, that nothing has always been something (

This is not a work that connects people to each other or to the artist – or to a space. Old houses are not in fact a “nothing” for people who live in their neighborhoods but – like those cave paintings or those cathedrals – connections to the past. This work of public art breaks that connections, separates the world into high-brow and low-brow spheres.

Guy Debord’s Situationist International movement is linked to the work of Diego Rivera for both are intent on using public art as a way to divide the world into historical periods. Unlike the cathedral that links people across time, the Rivera mural – or the Situationist work – slices time into moments. He disapproves of traditional aesthetics, traditional forms of art in which “The degree of aesthetic success is measured by a beauty inseparable from duration, and tending even to lay claim to eternity.” (

The Situationist goal is immediate participation in a passionate abundance of life, through the variation of fleeting moments resolutely arranged. The success of these moments can only be their passing effect. Situationists consider cultural activity, from the standpoint of totality, as an experimental method for constructing daily life, which can be permanently developed with the extension of leisure and the disappearance of the division of labor (beginning with the division of artistic labor). (

Richard Serra’s “Titled Arc” is one of the most famous examples of modern public art because its installation in New York caused such an outcry that the work was actually dismantled and hauled away as scrap. Those who fought against the destruction of the piece argued that it was a great work of art. Those who wished to see it removed argued that it blocked their use of public space. While they were dismissed as plebeians by those in the artworld, their objections in fact had more than a kernel of legitimacy to them. The square in which the sculpture was placed was a public arena, a place of community. The Arc tore across it, transforming a shared space into a divided space. It this what public art should do? Perhaps not.

It should be noted that this is not the same thing as arguing that public art should not be controversy. Controversy is in fact a great way of brining a community together – of getting people out of their private lives and into dialogue with each other. Art in public places is different from art in private places and it should help to bring a community together – if not to the point of agreement at least to the point that people agree that dialogue is a good thing.

Maya Lin’s memorials do precisely this – and perhaps it is instructive that we call her works memorials rather than public art. Perhaps that purpose of bringing all of those who live together in a single moment together and then allowing them to see their connections to both the past and the future is something that we no longer wish to do with our public spaces or with our art. Perhaps our sense of community has been altered too much since Chartres, since Lascaux.

But the success of Lin’s works – especially the Vietnam War memorial and the Civil Rights memorial – suggest that we have in fact not quite given up on such a sense of community. We wish to come upon objects in our public spaces – whether we call them art or memorials – that tell us that we are not alone, that history and humanity stand with us.

Works Cited

Ucko, Peter. Paleolithic Cave Art. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990.

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