I feel ambivalent about public art. On occasion I am uplifted, and that, thankfully, is happening more frequently. At other times I simply see material white noise—stuff. Often this happens when I see an abstract red sculpture placed in front of a glassy corporate structure that from a sensory perspective is a no building. You cannot communicate with such a setting.
I am a simple person, and I divide the physical environment of cities into yes and no spaces. Places that emotionally say yes engender the virtues we call urbanity. Places that say no are lifeless, relentless in their dullness, and often ugly. They fragment and divide us from each other. Many environments lie somewhere in between.
I always look at a city as a total environment and as a potential creative ecology. This is a setting that creates the preconditions for all its citizens to think, plan, and act with imagination, and where the public ethos encourages individuals to feel they can be shapers, makers, and co-creators of their evolving place. This happens rarely.
Cities are complex organisms. They are a mix of their “hardware” foundations and the social energy and activities, or “software,” blended into them. Cities are shaped primarily by a culture of engineering since it is chiefly the hardware folks who determine how places look and feel. But their insights are limited. Too often they do not understand how the emotional flow of the city works—something that artists appreciate. We need the combined insights and intellectual artistry of many players to make a city work, from cultural historians, engineers, social activists, planners, businesspeople, and psychologists, to ordinary citizens, philosophers, artists, and many more. When they work well together they create urbanity, one of our greatest achievements.
Each discipline has its special contribution to make, and ideally in city making each of us grasps the essence of what the others offer. I believe the greatest contribution artists can make to city making is in the way they think, rather than any specific piece of public art, however good, they produce.
At the same time, involvement with the artistic can create problems for typical urban managers because the values and attributes that dominate the modern world are almost diametrically opposed to the values promoted by artistic creativity. Urban managers prefer certainty and predictability. Their worldview is summed up by these words: goal, objective, focus, strategy, outcome, calculation, measurable, quantifiable, logical, solution, efficient, effective, economic sense, profitable, rational, linear. At its best, artistic creativity involves a journey, not knowing where it will lead or who will arrive; it involves truth-searching and embodies a quest for the profound; it has no calculated purpose; it is not goal-oriented, nor measurable in easy ways, nor fully explicable rationally; it denies instant gratification; and it accepts ambiguity, uncertainty, and paradox.