Public art, public interest and the public good
  • Courtney Pedersen

While public art is often considered a key hallmark of a creative city, artworks in the public realm also have the capacity to act as lightening rods for social anxiety at times of perceived crisis. This paper considers recent debates about government-sponsored public art projects in Queensland in light of three international case studies: Rodin’s Thinker in Paris, Tilted Arc in New York and Vault in Melbourne. It considers whether consensus positions on public art are possible or desirable in light of issues of spatial control, and proposes that well-negotiated anxieties about public art may be an indicator of creative vibrancy and dynamism that will assist in the future understanding of Queensland’s experiment with government-mandated public art.


Keywords: public art - taste - anxiety - policy - spatial control

The history of art in the public realm is littered with flashpoint debates regarding art's relationship with, and responsibility to, its public. This brief discussion analyses a small number of these 'hot' moments to consider what public art can tell us about our cities and the way they are used by their citizens. Given the significance of public art as a key aspect of the creative city as it is now understood, considering the role it can play in the story of a city’s development is vital. While we might assume that public art is most successful when it is loved and celebrated by its public, we need to question whether perfect accord between public art and its audience is possible, or even desirable. In particular, this discussion considers the debates regarding public art’s role and symbolic significance in the lives of cities through the lens of Queensland’s local experience, which has been a complex and interesting one.

From 1999 onwards Queensland was involved in the most ambitious government plan to embed artistic production in the public realm in national history. In that year the state government instituted a policy to set aside two percent of all public works programs costing over $250,000 to artworks for those developments (Younger 2009: 1). This was significant in a number of ways. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it was an official statement about the importance of creativity, at a time when the discussion of the ‘information economy’ and the creative industries had reached fever pitch. Secondly, it made available unprecedented funding for public art in Queensland and necessitated a new government bureaucracy to administer it – and thirdly, it was a quarantined amount of money drawn from the public works budget that did not impact on the arts funding budget at all. Remarkably, during the early stages of this policy it seemed there was more concern amongst the ‘artworld’ community than the general public about this new policy, which was named ‘Art Built-in’. A review of the policy that took place in 2006 restructured the allocation of funds and decoupled the percentage for arts from the individual public works projects. This meant that the new policy agency, art+place was able to fund a broader range of projects that were not reliant on direct architectural integration (Arts Queensland 2007).

After a change of government in Queensland in 2012, and resulting destabilization of the public sector, anxiety about public art was evoked through official communication with the media, with the new Attorney General condemning the substantial curated commissions for the new Supreme Court building as a prime example. The Attorney General’s views on public art were discussed in opinion pieces such as Des Houghton’s, appearing in the Courier Mail in 2012:

Attorney-General and Minister for Justice Jarrod Bleijie thinks Smith's work is childish - an assault on the public purse in an era of austerity […] Nor does the Attorney-General see much merit in the two other major works in the building. To his mind, Yayoi Kusama's $970,000 Thousands of Eyes artwork in the public square in front of the new building is puerile. I have to agree. (Houghton 2012)

While the examples discussed in this article are largely works of public sculpture, it is important to note that the discussion about public art has moved on from a fixation with sculpture as the main mode of public art presentation. In the 1990s, productive conversations about ‘new genre’ public art, as it was sometimes described, raised important questions about why public art had to be monumental, permanent, and architectural (Lacy 1995). The revised Queensland Government funding of 2007 introduced the important innovation that temporary, contingent and performative works could also be funded as ‘public art’. Platform, a program of artworks curated into bus stations was one example of this. The embrace of transient artworks and other events is reminiscent of the European strategy of Animation Culturel, applied from the 1970s, to revitalise city economies with cultural attractions designed to attract and keep visitors attentive (Valentine 201: 229). Interestingly, contingent and ephemeral works have not been the traditional focus of the same sort of intense hostility as fixed, permanent commissions – although it could be argued that they offer worse ‘value for money’ and it is harder to see what they contribute to the national patrimony.

Of course there had always been members of the public who had objected to some of the works commissioned as part of the Art Built-in and art+place policies. Wry comments and facetious names for particular works were in circulation, and the Queensland academic and critic Rex Butler disparaged the work that was commissioned as dull and compromised by its bureaucratic origins (Younger 2009: 3), but humour and accusations of well-meaning blandness changed to an inference of profligacy and the rhetoric of affront in 2012. 

Creative approaches to public space are more popularly discussed than ever before, with substantial new interest in ‘new urbanism’, ‘place-making’, and ‘design thinking’, so why is public art still the perennial focus of panic? Reference is often made to seemingly excessive budgets, but the cost of public art is often inflated in the popular imagination. Public works of all kinds are expensive, but by comparison public art is often built on relatively modest budgets; this modesty may be part of its vulnerability. While the average person cannot comprehend a project budgeted to millions of dollars, price tags like 50, 100 or 150 thousand dollars have a tangibility about them. The average person can be encouraged to think of these costs in terms of their annual wage, or the value of their house. That these figures often include the more mundane aspects of installation such as engineering, and that they come nowhere near average building and construction costs is irrelevant. Anxiety about public art as a waste of money in difficult times harks back to previous discussions about the perceived virtues and sins of public art.

The fierce anti-public art argument is probably most famously encapsulated in a 1982 article, ‘The Malignant Object’ written by Douglas Stalker and Clark Glymour. Their Public Interest piece appeared in the midst of difficult debates regarding Richard Serra’s controversial public sculpture in New York, Tilted Arc, installed in 1981. Their position, put starkly, was ‘that much public sculpture, and public art generally as it is created nowadays in the United States, provides at best trivial benefits to the public, but does provide substantial and identifiable harm’ (Stalker and Glymour 1982: 4). This assertion of the harmfulness of these projects is startling, but why would they make this claim? In their view, the public purse should not be required to pay for things that the public doesn’t like, and art, like pornography they argued, should be an activity of personal choice.

In an era where sculpture in particular was often a defining feature of corporate forecourts Serra’s work should have been in accord with the prevailing aesthetic, but there were complications. Robert Hughes wrote about the inauspicious beginnings for Tilted Arc this way:

Flanked by the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building and the U.S. Court of International Trade, Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan is one of the ugliest public spaces in America. Everything, from its coarse buildings – which look the way institutional disinfectant smells -- to its dry, littered fountain, begs for prolonged shiatsu with a wrecker's ball. But since no one is going to do that, would the next best thing be to put a Major Sculpture by a Major American Artist there? (Hughes 1985)

Hughes’ description captures the sense of New York in one of its grimmest periods, when clearly the mood of disillusionment was transferred also to this work of art.

Tilted Arc provoked intense criticism that required a response from the administrative commissioning body, the General Services Administration. As a consequence, they surveyed users of the plaza. While the survey results indicated that opinion was evenly split, the decision was made to dismantle and remove the work. Serra, infuriated by the decision, took legal action, suing the government in 1986. The Smithsonian Museum describes the events this way:

Although opinion was evenly divided, the GSA decided that Tilted Arc should be dismantled. In 1986, Serra sued the government for breach of contract and his right to freedom of expression and due process, arguing that Tilted Arc was designed specifically for that site and would lose all meaning anywhere else. District Attorney Rudolph Giuliani responded that neither the First nor the Fifth Amendment was applicable, since Serra had voluntarily sold his "speech" to the GSA. The Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that the government had the right to modify, censor, or destroy Tilted Arc. The sculpture was dismantled on March 15, 1989. William Diamond, regional administrator of the GSA, proclaimed: "This is a day for the people to rejoice, because now the plaza returns rightfully to the people” (Smithsonian Museum).

This message, that the artist, or perhaps the artwork itself, had stolen public space from the people is a hint of the anxiety regarding disorder that often characterises discussion of space, as will be discussed later.

Another perspective on public art was put forward in the midst of this debate, from an unlikely source. Stanford University art history professor and Rodin scholar, Albert Edward Elsen, published his quite conventional historical study, Rodin's Thinker and the dilemmas of modern public sculpture in 1985. One could hardly think of a more stark contrast than the situation of the popularly loved and well-recognised figurative sculpture, The Thinker and the much-maligned formalist Cor-ten steel arc of Serra’s, but Elsen’s work revealed that all art in the public realm must be put through the crucible of public opinion and will be viewed over time through differing lenses. The 1980s were years of difficult structural and systemic changes for New York City. The reality was also that Tilted Arc was being read through the lens of a city in ‘crisis’. New York had been substantially altered by the financial crisis of the mid-1970s (Ikeler 2011: 467) and in 1980 there had been a 12 day transit strike, creating absolute chaos in a city so reliant on public transport. Additionally, street crime in the city was a cause of immense public concern. The obstructive nature of the artwork, cutting through the plaza like a wall, and the evolving patina of its surface (rusting into an oxidised coating) would have exacerbated the sense of a city in decay. Additionally, the city was also dealing with the effects of a drought that lasted through the early to mid-1980s, causing public fountains to be turned off around the city (Anderson and Dunlap 1985).

The Thinker is a perfect example of how art in the public realm can serve as a barometer of social change and how the contribution it will make to public debate both now and in the future is unpredictable. Originally conceived as the figure of Dante contemplating his poetry at the top of the Gates of Hell, this heroic nude was displayed as a single figure at the Salon exhibition in 1904. At this time a subscription was begun for the most famous cast of it, one for the city of Paris, which was placed in front of the Pantheon. Once the work was put on pubic display in Paris in 1906, The Thinker was embraced by the workers’ movement as a symbol of Socialist resistance (Elsen 1985). In the eyes of some, its original position outside the Pantheon elevated ‘the thinking labourer’ to a national hero. Was The Thinker contemplating the lot of the French worker? Its meaning was interpreted as a statement on the false promises of state pensions, on the capacity for creative thought amongst the drudge class and the imminent demise of tyrants and despotic monarchs across Europe. Edwin Markham’s poem of 1916 conveyed this interpretation of the work when he wrote ‘To-day is judgement day : awake, Upstart, O toiling millions, break The Shackles, lift the flag unfurled, Rise, outcast monarchs of the world’  (Marham 1916:  87). The work became a rallying point for socialism and consequently provoked intense anxiety amongst the bourgeoisie.

After Rodin’s death in 1917, the aura surrounding him as an artist dissipated and his work fell out of fashion. The Thinker was moved to the Musée Rodin in 1922. The public reasoning was that the sculpture was an obstruction, but we can think about this decision to move the work in more complex terms. Firstly, it moved the work to the elective environment of the museum. This retreat to a designated site for art was a triumph for those who had seen it as destabilising in the first place. Secondly, we could argue that The Thinker’s work as an established landmark of the city had been done. The multiple casts of the work that existed around the world and the limitless mechanical reproductions of images of the work meant that the work primarily existed symbolically. It had shifted from a work that physically existed in the public realm to one that was public in every sense. And finally, both art and socialism had moved on, and in the early 1920s the radical forms of modern art bore no resemblance to Rodin’s poet.

There were those who recognised the relevance of Elsen’s study to the debates surrounding art and the city of the late twentieth century As David Carrier wrote in reference to Elsen’s book:

Still, what is genuinely unimaginative about the Stalker-Glymour essay is their refusal even to entertain seriously the idea that with time the public might come to enjoy works which today are admired only by an elite. If, as Elsen says, modernism rejects 'the dogma of an impersonal, absolute or true beauty', perhaps that is not because such sculpture can no longer be created, but because it is too early for all of us to see that what Baudelaire identified as 'the ephemeral, the fleeting forms of beauty in the life of our day' have the qualities that pre-modernist sculptors associated with true beauty. If the Thinker could, in less than a century, be so radically reinterpreted, who can say how our public art may appear in another century? In the 1880s, Elsen notes, his 'powerful body signified the physical work of art, while his concentrated thought evoked the intellectual demands of the creative process'. Today, when the role of physical labour has changed, the statue is unavoidably seen differently. In thus telling the story of one early modernist work, Elsen shows how in Rodin's time, as in ours, artworks are mirrors, artefacts which - so the art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto has written - externalise 'a way of viewing the world, expressing the interior of a cultural period’.  (Carrier 1986:  615)

There might be no better example of the changing fortunes of a public artwork than a case study from closer to home. Unlike Serra’s Tilted Arc, with its long drawn out saga of artist rights versus the perceived public good, Ron Robertson-Swann’s work, Vault had a relatively short life as a central sculptural commission in a prominent location. It was installed in the City Square on Swanston Street in May 1980, and then dismantled later the same year when the Victorian state government sacked the City Council. The Builders Labourers Federation consequently placed bans on further City Square work projects. The following year the work was reinstalled, but this time in the obscure location of Batman Park, then a lonely and unloved area of the city, where it was more regularly used as a surface for graffiti and skateboard tricks (Wallis 2004). The key criticisms of Vault were focused on its colour. The Queen was apocryphally reported to have asked whether they couldn’t have made it a more agreeable shade. It stood out resolutely against both the 19th century Victorian bluestone, and 20th century grey concrete Brutalist buildings that characterised Melbourne at that time. As Melbourne’s self-conception as a creative city evolved however, the image of this brightly coloured geometric sculpture would return. When the architectural firm Denton Corker Marshall were commissioned by a conservative government to design an entry statement for the journey along Melbourne’s CityLink in the late 1990s for example, their choice of a vivid yellow diagonal beam for the International Gateway was highly evocative of Robertson-Swann’s sculptural work. ‘High alert’ yellow appeared to become the city’s signature motif; a self-conscious disavowal of Vault’s rejection nearly twenty years earlier.

In 2002 Vault was restored and moved once again, this time to the forecourt of the new Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in the restructured Southbank precinct. ACCA’s director, Juliana Engberg welcomed the work, signalling that it had found its home, ‘where, we hope it will remain in perpetuity for all Melburnians to love’ (Engberg n.d.). Indeed, the story of Vault’s commission, rejection and return has become a framework for Melbourne’s own creative city mythology. In 2012 the City of Melbourne announced that it would evoke this narrative in the street-scaping designs for Swanston Street – the site of Vault’s original installation. The Lord Mayoral press release couldn’t have been clearer about its embrace of the story:

The Lord Mayor today announced a finishing touch that would be the “icing on the cake” for Swanston Street. In coming months twelve pieces representing elements of Ron Robertson-Swann’s iconic sculpture, Vault, will be installed as part of the new tram stops. “Vault is an important chapter of the remarkable history of Swanston Street,” The Lord Mayor said. “Thirty years after it was installed, it seems everyone still has an opinion on Ron Robertson-Swann’s masterpiece. Vault marked the beginning of a new conversation about public art and revived Melbourne’s collective interest in urban design. Our attitude towards contemporary art has matured and now that Swanston Street has come of age, what better time to revisit our most iconic piece of public art?” (City of Melbourne 2012)

Yellow geometry has become the visual metaphor for Melbourne's evolution as a city. It signals both the anxiety and the period of refiguring that has taken place since.


So what do these case studies show us? While much of the commissioning of public art assumes that the harmonisation of public space and public taste is possible, we need to consider whether this is the case – and more importantly, is harmonisation of this kind a desirable thing? If we borrow from the handbook of social geography and make use of Stanley Cohen’s ideas of social control and spatial classification1 we can see that the ‘clean space’ of control (idealised in some cultures, including ours, as the private home) relies on the frictionless reconciliation of taste and environment. However, in order to be truly of the public, public space must obviously accommodate a wide variety of tastes. No single system of structural planning, architectural model or public art mode could possibly accommodate this diversity in an ‘ideal’ manner. What passes for beautiful and beneficial then is the taste of the governing body – the taste of control. Whether this taste is progressive or conservative is beside the point. It simply cannot be universally loved in the first instance. Discussions about the special responsibility of public art to cater to public taste often wilfully avoid this reality. Ronald Lee Fleming’s 2005 discussion of the changing landscape for public art in the United States asks indignantly, ‘why should there be a great disconnect between the viewing public and an artist working in public space?’ (Fleming and Goldman 2005: 57), but his question presupposes that there is one viewing public and one set of criteria to establish ‘public utility, associational significance, and [social] expectations’ (Fleming and Goldman 2005: 56). Cities in transition and/or crisis feel the friction of public art more acutely, and this anxiety can be exploited in order to reaffirm a ‘consensus’ of taste that serves the status quo. While a pre-existing crisis is not required for the initiation of a state of moral panic (Sibley 1995: 39), greater social insecurity creates ideal conditions for panic over public art. In this way, public art is also able to serve as the trigger for a moral panic that signals a renegotiation of public space. In the case of Queensland, public condemnation of public art signalled the political changing of the guard and was used to summon up an atmosphere of impending economic crisis.

It is telling that in the 1980s Stalker and Glymore evoked the image of pornography as an equivalent for public art—this analogy emphasises the ‘shamelessness’ of art outside its proper place. As ‘useless artefacts’ artworks can be seen as violating the taboo of pollution. As David Sibley established, the duality of inside/outside, like many dualities in the designation of space, is potentially anxiety producing (Sibley 1995: 94). If the perception is that art belongs inside the metaphorical brown paper bag of the gallery, its ingress upon the streets represents disorder rather than the generous distribution of culture into public space. As such, public artworks complicate the city and require negotiation. The story of Vault reveals that the violation artworks can represent lingers in the public psyche to be revisited and reconciled like a well-handled personal trauma. But in opposition to Fleming’s assertion that this trauma somehow damages both the public good and the bond of trust that he sees as necessary between the artist and the citizenry, Nicolas Whybrow has described how the handling of this trauma is actually a vital part of the development of the city as a complex and pluralistic space (Whybrow 2011:  59).

Like art historian Claire Bishop’s influential advocacy of antagonistic aesthetics, Whybrow takes his cue from Chantal Mouffe’s contention that agonistic processes of dissent are vital to sustaining democracy. In his book, Art and the City, Whybrow analyses what he refers to as the ‘triangulation of art, the city and human beings’ to consider how public art often reveals practices that delimit democratic participation (Whybrow 2011: 8). By embracing the potential conflict inherent to the process of installing art in public places we may in fact be initiating democratic politics by revealing the impossibility of a singular society and social taste.

Certainly the German town of Münster provides an interesting model for how a scandal over public art can be worked through in a way that fundamentally changes the city’s character. In 1975, a George Rickey abstract sculpture met with such resistance in that town that a program of public discussion and education was proposed. This proposal was the origin point for the 1977 Münster Skulptur Projekte, which has since taken place every ten years. As Whybrow acknowledges, it is the development of Münster’s highly diverse public art collection over both time and space, or the residues of its places and pasts, that makes it such a desirable cultural pilgrimage destination (Whybrow 2011: 81). The periodic revitalisation of the debates surrounding public art has invigorated the social and cultural life of the city.

With the recent collapse of support for the conservative party in Queensland after only a single term in government office, it is tempting to imagine that a twenty-first century public also doubts the benefit of a unitary social narrative.  Brisbane will now have to negotiate the residue of its previous public art policies and it will be fascinating to observe how the story of the period between 1999 and 2012 is retold. In particular, it will be interesting to see whether recent anxieties about the outcomes of these public art projects can be successfully recuperated into a future story of Brisbane in such a way that acknowledges the important work of dissensus (the refutation of a universal ‘common sense’) carried out by these artworks. The embrace of this conflict may be one vital strategy for Brisbane’s development as a complex, creative city. 



Works cited: 

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