THE PUBLIC VOICE
"The eye sees only what the mind
is prepared to comprehend."
Historically, changes in social, political, and religious beliefs have resulted in parallel changes in the production of public art. These changes can be temporal (as from one decade to the next) or geographic (community to community, city to city, state to state, country to country). Ethnic and religious groups may simultaneously occupy the same geographic territory, for example, yet have significantly different belief systems, values, and cultural production.
The dramatic shifts and changes in the public presentation of art from its Neolithic beginnings to the present, and the constant struggle to invent new modes of cultural production, have attracted our attention and informed us in surprising and often unpredictable ways. The "allowed" and "prohibited" meanings that are directly or indirectly expressed through a public work of art form a complex composition of ideas incorporating dreams, ambitions, myths, and fears - the many nuances of the objective and subjective self as a public entity. Works of art are necessarily encoded with the intelligence, vision, and resonating will of the dominant influences of their time.
Emerging from the Enlightenment, the modern world struggled to be free from the vestiges of nineteenth-century social and cultural norms. This struggle was active and highly critical in its approach to history. By the late eighteenth century, the forces of democratic and social idealism were revolutionizing European and American political, social, and economic life. This new, overtly critical activist movement enabled new modes of cultural expression challenging the hegemony of long-held European social and cultural traditions defined by orthodoxy and protectionism. Through the ascendancy of democratic modes of thinking, critical activism in the arts and sciences became institutionalized to the degree that the practice of freedom and those conditions enabling critical activism became one and the same.
The social and cultural practice of making art and placing it in public places has from America's colonial past to the present been a challenging and often controversial enterprise. During the colonial period, figurative monuments that commemorated the deeds of British military heroes and celebrated the power and authority of the monarchy were the order of the day. Communities, associations, and important individuals commissioning public monuments or commemorative sculpture looked to England for sculptors. The colonies were far too young and raw culturally and economically to support such a discrete artisan practice. As evinced by the vandalization and eventual removal of English artist Joseph Wilton's sculpture of King George III by New York City colonists during the American Revolution, commemorative monuments signifying British power and authority were ultimately rejected by the American colonists.
Following the American Revolution, the new republic embarked upon its own public art enterprise in much the same way and for similar purposes as had the British. With few exceptions - such as the allegorical sculptures of Comedy and Tragedy (1808) by William Rush that adorn Philadelphia's Chestnut Street Theatre - this period in American history produced monuments and statues by first-generation professional American sculptors such as Rush, Horatio Greenough, and Hiram Powers that commemorated Revolutionary military accomplishments and honored national heroes. Inspired by the dignity and grace of neoclassicism, sculptures of this period were held in high esteem by the public. Many of these works were the focal points for special honors and tributes during annual foundation celebrations and were used as scenographic backdrops for grand public events. This was the beginning of a golden age for public art in America.
Through the energetic development of abundant natural resources and a political and social commitment to industrialization, nation-building intensified and a public art followed that reflected the character and ardor of America's new vision of Manifest Destiny. In 1864, sculpture as a means of expressing American values and vision found formal public support from the U.S. Congress with the passage of legislation introduced by Justin Smith Morrill of Strafford, Vermont, to create a National Hall of Statuary in the former chambers of the U.S. House of Representatives. Such official endorsement of sculpture led to the increased production of works of public art celebrating the aggressive social, economic, and political ideals and practices of nation-building. Public art became a significant means through which the nation could define and honor its belief in itself, both for the sake of its own identity and before a curious and watchful Europe.
The social, economic, and political ideals embodied in the concept of Manifest Destiny inspired a broad range of neoclassical, Beaux Arts, and new American naturalist works of public art. Works by such sculptors as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, and Gertrude Whitney, all of whom produced statues, memorials, and architectural arts, populated American parks, plazas, halls of business, places of worship, government buildings, and private homes (some of which later became public museums).
This aggressive support for art in public places culminated with the presentation of the extraordinary national expositions that began in Chicago in 1893 and continued in Buffalo in 1901, St. Louis in 1904, and San Francisco in 1915. These exhibitions created grandiose venues for the installation of art in public places and grand thematic opportunities for artists to consider and interpret modern subjects such as energy, evolution, and race at a scale of production that has not been matched in this century. Fueled by the resonance of commonly understood figurative sculptural narratives, works of art created during this time continue to attract support and interest from the general public to this day and are often looked upon by public decision makers as the standard for greatness in American public art. Public works of art of this period idealized and affirmed the officially supported social, economic, and political doctrines of the time, thereby gaining broad-based public acceptance and support.
Following the First World War, the booming American industrial and capital markets led to an unprecedented growth in industrial and urban development. High-rise buildings and massive urban complexes reshaped the cityscape, and the new captains of industry and finance began building palaces of commerce to rival the great palaces of Europe. The streamlined, modernized sculpture of artists such as Gaston Lachaise, Paul Manship, and Elie Nadelman gained great favor in this new, energetic environment. The harsh social and economic realities of the Great Depression were still a decade away, and the highly stylized motifs of this new modern work were publicly acceptable in part because the work continued the trend in public art of affirming acceptable (even traditional) social and cultural ideals.
The Great Depression of 1929 gave voice to a new form of public art that began shortly before the first decade of the new century, with social realist sculptures by Abastenia St. Leger Eberle, Mahonri M. Young, Harry Wickey, and Bessie Potter Vonnoh. These artists depicted nonidealized, common activities and images of the common moments and circumstances of American life. This new social realism found no public patronage until the conditions of the Great Depression forced the emergence of a new populist art, expressing themes of economic, social, and political realism and bringing with it the emergence of a new voice-social criticism. The ideals of this new form celebrated the strength, trials, and tribulations of the common man and woman as the genuine bedrock of American life and values. The 1930s were a critical time in the development of an American artistic vocabulary and agenda bound to ideals of social, cultural, and racial equity. Of the numerous initiatives advanced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to combat the nation's economic collapse, a series of programs managed through the successive Civil Works, Works Progress, and Work Projects Administrations created innovative opportunities for American artists to create works of art. Public sculptures, murals, easel paintings, photographs, and works of graphic art created under the auspices of these new "socially progressive" programs were placed in both permanent and temporary sites. They toured the nation's art centers, and in some cases they formed the basis for museum collections around the country. These publicly funded programs resulted in the largest public art enterprise in American history.
The last of the major Depression-era federal funding initiatives for support of the arts, the Works Projects Administration, was abolished in June 1943 following America's entry into World War II. Following the Second World War and the resultant destruction of Europe's industrial base, America's productive forces were unchallenged. America was a fully industrialized nation standing on much stronger footing than the war-ravaged European nations, whose industrial bases had to be rebuilt and modernized. The American drive to create a new, modern world that challenged and swept aside the institutions and values of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries inspired the public to accept and even marvel at new forms and functions in architecture, transportation, mass communications systems, and entertainment. America's break from the past was purposeful and willful, and "newness" and modernity defined a category of cultural values that supported the consumption/production cycle necessary to sustain rapid economic growth and development. The words "new" and "modern" were used to suggest a world where the problems of the past had no future. In this same mode, the previous traditions and imperatives for public art that communicated social purposes and values were eschewed in favor of independent, forward-thinking expressions of bold, personal visions.
At its core, modernism is a critical enterprise given to both defining and solving problems. Beginning with the Enlightenment, it was assumed that through the objective application of technique and process, a solution could be devised for every problem. Through the application of intellect, hard work, and diligence, the problems of the past could be swept away and replaced by objective rational humanism. Modernism placed value on critically inspired formal structures, structures that devalued and often despised the social and cultural orthodoxies of the premodernist world.
Modernism in public art celebrated the independence of the inventive individual and romanticized willful creativity. New, modern works of art rapidly became signifiers of a community's or company's modern character, just as the artist became both an icon and an iconoclast, hero and antihero. Artists came to be viewed as courageous creators forging the conditions and terms of the new world-a world in which anything and everything was possible. Artists such as Alexander Calder, Jacques Lipchitz, Seymour Lipton, Louise Nevelson, Barnett Newman, Isamu Noguchi, and David Smith defined the terms of the new public art with their self-contained forms, embracing abstraction as a symbol for artistic "newness" apart from tradition and academicism. Concepts in modernism were expanded by such artists as Carl Andre, Larry Bell, Ronald Bladen, Dale Chihuly, Walter De Maria, Mark di Suvero, Dan Flavin, Nancy Graves, Robert Grosvenor, Michael Heizer, Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, Richard Serra, Tony Smith, Robert Smithson, and Keith Sonnier to encompass a range of individual interests and modes of expression as broad as phenomenal experience would allow.
Modernist theory and practice in public art of the 1950s through the late 1970s placed requirements of truth and integrity upon the production of works of art, directly contradicting the traditional public art modes of figurative representation and narrative idealism. A modernist sculpture's meaning was predicated upon the concrete experience of the material object, removed from the burden of expressing content or subject. A work of art could be a wholly personal experience whose "meaning" would be the same as the viewer's response to seeing and experiencing the work of art itself. Although on the surface this seems simple enough to digest, for a public long accustomed to experiencing works of art with clear, idealized sociopolitical content, such modernist object-based and non-narrative forms left viewers without the historical underpinnings to help them understand or know the work. The greatest and most creative achievements in modernist public sculpture were often the most misunderstood and maligned.
After fifty years of modernist dominance, decision makers grew suspicious of the modernist promise and weary of the pursuit of grand formal solutions to social, political, and economic problems. Beginning in the mid-1980s, both the general public and the decision makers began forcefully demanding a new iteration of "modern" art, requiring the reintegration of public art and public purpose.
We now live in an age of mass "realpolitik." Groups, organizations, even private individuals, regardless of their interests, can through the tenacious application of well-orchestrated criticism dramatically affect the course and outcome of public decision making. Our culture resonates with unpredictability, which has resulted in surprising new forms of social and political anxiety-public officials have become fearfully nervous and apprehensive in their decision making.
In today's poly-cultural, socially unaligned America, criticism has become the common mode of public discourse. Public activities and enterprises are as a matter of course critically deconstructed and repackaged as news or news entertainment by the broadcast and print media. With the recognition and acceptance that public projects automatically attract critical interest, public decision makers hesitate to support activities that are not approved by politically meaningful constituencies. Public decision makers view art as a risky investment for their political support, whereas criticizing the arts has proved to be universally politically advantageous.
The presentation of art for public purposes by public officials using public funds is a highly sensitive operation. Notwithstanding the inclusiveness of contemporary public art decision making, there are almost always forceful interests opposing public art with great conviction and intense moral indignation. Public art always carries with it the potential for political embarrassment; as such, decision makers search for guaranteed positive outcomes to their public art decisions. In response to this political vulnerability, officials are protective to the degree that selected works of art must predictably conform to the cultural and social standards of the recipient community and meet very specific publicly defined criteria-the public expectations for which are no surprises and a positive outcome.
To be consistently successful within this administratively complex and politically sensitive environment, the artist must have at his or her disposal an ever-expanding array of highly refined skills and abilities. Today's public decision makers require evidence of past positive performance: How many public projects has the artist completed? Have the artist's past public works received an overall positive response? Is the artist's creative process flexible? Does the artist present and work well with the public? Does the artist have the appropriate management and technical resources to bring a project to a successful conclusion? Is the artist an asset in terms of conflict resolution?
Artists such as Vito Acconci, Alice Aycock, Jonathan Borofsky, James Carpenter, Dale Chihuly, Houston Conwill, Mark di Suvero, Sam Gilliam, Richard Hass, Larry Kirkland, Maya Lin, Claes Oldenburg, Dennis Oppenheim, Tom Otterness, Beverly Pepper, Dorthea Rockburne, Jim Sanborn, Martha Schwartz, and Ned Smyth have in the past fifteen years successfully completed multiple public art projects in all geographic regions of the United States. Although the work of each of these artists is uniquely different in terms of content, medium, and style, what is similar is the overwhelming evidence of past positive performance in terms of both technical production and public response.
Each of the many projects completed by these artists has embedded purposes that service or engage the public in multifaceted ways-from the often humorous and challenging architectural environments of Vito Acconci to the highly tactile, visually invigorating glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly to the landmark scale of Jonathan Borofsky's and Mark di Suvero's work. All of these artists have been consistently competitive within the public art arena. The range of art represented in the work of these artists demonstrates an ever-increasing public interest and appetite for tactile experience, narrative and symbolic communication, and humor. As they have historically, public decision makers will continue to embrace art that elevates and refreshes the common moment of experience with a kernel of awe and wonder-some small magic that transforms the everyday eye and mind through the efforts and vision of another. Art that performs this function will receive encore after encore after encore in this public art medium-the most democratically expressive form of cultural production.
Published in Chihuly Projects, Portland Press, 2000
Also from Chihuly Projects:
Dale Chihuly's Paradise Regained, Barbara Rose