There is a certain sort of madness that you need to suffer from (and give in to) to pursue art. You have to be willing to open yourself up, artistically and emotionally, to the world’s derision, judgment, and to the expertise of everyone who is a sudden expert on whatever it is you were trying to convey. There are definitely success stories in the arts but more often than not there are burned out remains and locked away books and pictures and songs that no one will ever see. And none of this is to say that the artist is some transcendent genius sent to lead the people to enlightenment.
Not at all.
Artists can be vain, selfish, delusional, and a half dozen other things that aren’t pretty to be but you do have to be a little mad to create something for the world (wide or small) and to hope that more people appreciate it than don’t. In that madness though, charming as it can be, is that pesky delusion, and that’s where we little artsy folk can get into trouble.
The notion of public art is awesome. Coming at it as layman, public art is a great thing. It brings beauty, a sense of place, and a sense of community to an area and gives people to admire and talk about. Now, you don’t often get controversial pieces as public art, as far as subject matter goes, and you really shouldn’t because by putting your art in the public you are taking on their trust that you won’t shove their nose into things that need a dialogue and not a lecture. No one likes to be told what to think or feel and by creating a public piece that is made for the purpose of controversy betrays the public trust and immediately closes off dialogue. Which isn’t to say that every piece of public art needs to be obvious and generic but that to make a piece for the public, to be displayed in a public place, is to be trusted that you won’t abuse your gift and the honor you’re being given. You have the opportunity to inspire thought, idea, discussion, and in some rare instances another artist. So don’t be a jerk!
As wonderful as public art is, there’s a notion that art can be more impactful and immediate if that public art is temporary. Now, again, I come at this as a layman and a very raw and questionably talented writer and artist, so I have no expertise on the socio-art ideas and such so hang in there with me for a moment. This sort of art can be very interesting. Look at some of the talented street art out there (a whole other dangerous topic for another person and another day), the art displays as simple as painted elephants and frogs and cars on street corners and as grand as a display in Central Park. In a weird way our holidays do the same thing – we decorate in lavish and exciting ways to celebrate an event over a generally short period of time. So temporary public art is a pretty fun thing and can definitely get people talking. There is something about that immediacy of knowing it isn’t there to stay that intensifies the experience and that can create a special experience. Heck, personally I think that if you could take a certain bunch of raw materials/’parts’ and artists and then make and re-make art from it so it’s an ever evolving piece that’d be fascinating as to the process of art and how art changes with the creator. But there is a definite beauty to temporary art. Simply looking at the Buddhist sand art you can see what amazing beauty can be created but too that all things are temporary in this life but that a feeling, an inspiration can live on.
Public art, done well, can be amazing. Alas, public art done poorly harms not only the artwork, the vision, and the artist but the community. Poorly planned and executed art and art that does not take the public trust into account serves nothing but to frustrate everyone involved. If you are going to undertake a public art project first and foremost you need, and I stress need, to take into account the public trust. You are putting art into a public place (even if it is on private property if it’s in a community and out in the open it’s still public art, ergo part of the public trust) then you have to take into account that people will see this all the time and have to live with it for the entirety of its stay. Depending on its placement this is something the public will have become a part of their lives, if even just temporarily, and that needs to be respected. So, the artist/s need to appreciate that when they create this art. You cannot push the public trust and take advantage of it and expect people to see the art through that frustration. Then you have to have an actionable plan to create, maintain, and then remove that art. You cannot place it and walk away unless it is made of such things that it can safely erode and not harm anything. You can’t just put the art up and leave though. The process isn’t that simple, nor is the public trust that forgiving. And here’s the rub, the more that’s spent on the art, reasonably, irrationally, or extravagantly, the more people will focus on the flaws of the art. Fair? Not always, but it’s reasonable because as soon as you put the word ‘public’ into the art it becomes something that a lot of people feel an entitlement towards and ownership of, and again, that doesn’t make it fair but it makes it so just the same.
I certainly don’t envy anyone who takes on a public art project because it’s an often thankless and hard task. To some you will appear (and with some groups fairly so) to be telling an area how they should see art, create art, and feel art so you need, need, NEED to take that into consideration. You cannot walk into an area which will have an established arts culture and scene and tell them they are wrong and that you can do what they do better. You need to go in with open arms and open mind and ask what the community needs, what the community wants, and see where you can all meet in your thinking. With funding comes responsibility and with public space comes trust and you cannot betray that trust. You can’t.
The arts have it bad enough. With funding cuts, and schools moving away from the arts, and as a culture we don’t appreciate the more classical forms of arts as we used to and so artists have a rough road to get positive notice and to create impactful pieces. It’s not enough to be controversial because controversy with no meaning, no reason, no dialogue is simply a sort of violence against the public and any who question it or don’t understand. But art doesn’t have to be safe, or gentle, or kind. It has to be passionate, and it has to be real in some way and if it’s public it has to stay true to the public and their trust or you’re just wasting time, money, and effort. And the arts have very little of all of those things.
I look at it this way – don’t create something you can’t stand behind, beside, upon and feel good about (even ‘ugly’ art about horrible things has beauty and truth if done well) and don’t create something you cannot take ownership of maintain, destroy, or let go of if that becomes necessary.
If you build a shiny castle, make sure the people are allowed inside or it’s just a tinfoil tenement with no purpose, use, or reason to exist.