The romantic concept of the agora as the public meeting space of democracy has captured the imagination of thinkers for centuries. Today, public space, with its implied freedoms, informs our deliberations on what it means to have a vibrant public life in cities. The general notion among urban planners and related professions is that bringing people together in public space is intrinsically good—where “publicness” is measured by social interaction. In particular, they argue that public spaces, much like the agora, can foster democratic human interaction. In the face of increased privatization of the commons, runs the thinking, a “good” public space fosters equal access to the city, and therefore must be designed to be inclusionary, ordered, and harmonious.
This update of the agora is largely embraced by the public art community, especially among those who emphasize participatory works and events. Sculptures must unify; events must engage and entertain; participatory projects must coproduce utopian worlds; and all are leveraged as strategies for fostering and harnessing a particular kind of togetherness. This notion has also become the basis for cultural policy the world over, where social cohesion is seen as a paramount priority and deliverable. None of these impulses are intrinsically bad. Indeed, we need more harmonious spaces in our vastly unequal and violent societies. But in focusing on social cohesion, artists tend to ignore many urban realities they ought to be addressing.
For one thing, social cohesion implies consensus: Diverse groups of people must learn to tolerate each other through a consensual democratic process. By implication, cohesive public space should be all things to all people, which is unrealistic. This ideal ignores the myriad power relations that shape our everyday activities and freedom of movement throughout the city. Nor does it consider the incompatible and contested claims of different interest groups who vie for control of urban resources.
In short, in a polarized world we are bound to piss each other off occasionally. How, then, can democratic, consensus-based public space address irreconcilable differences? Vastly different worldviews coalesce and collide in cities—and where conservatism abounds, an agenda of tolerance may fall short of ensuring a progressive politics of equality. Indeed, a focus on social cohesion, by virtue of its aversion to conflict, runs the risk of espousing a pacifying politics.
An attendant concern is the public art world’s focus on managing cultural diversity, following the lead of entities like UNESCO, which emphasizes values like acceptance, dialogue, and “respect and mutual understanding.” It’s true that diversity is a particularly important topic in a world with xenophobic tendencies, but “managing” can also be a form of pacifying. To truly grapple with issues of cultural diversity requires a level of conflict that social cohesion agendas rarely allow.
Take, for instance, the issue of gentrification: Cultural policies often enable public art practices—even well-meaning, participatory ones—that soften the blow of development in the name of progress or “vibrancy.” Indeed, public art can be seen as a marker of gentrifying zones. Even graffiti, once a subversive blight on the city, has been co-opted. As one Johannesburg resident, displaced by culture-led development, told me: “When we saw the graffiti murals we knew we were done for.”
The fact is that cities are becoming increasingly unequal as a direct result of regional, national, and global sociopolitical policies. Public art cannot but function within this reality. When artists and arts administrators adopt an agenda of social cohesion, then, they frequently merely distract their audiences from these broader concerns. Moreover, while artists play a role in ensuring more empathetic and caring cities, so do city authorities whose policies could make a practical difference in the lives of citizens. Public art cannot single-handedly dismantle unequal power relations.
My intent is not to devalue the important role public art can play in polarized societies. I do, however, challenge artists to think carefully about the politics at play in any kind of public-facing art engagement. Because art operates beyond the real and the rational, it is well-placed to serve a critical function in and of society. But art is not implicitly radical, and neither is the imagination; the most nefarious regimes are also imaginative. Rather, the radical potential of public art lies not in merely bringing people together, but in making as much space for rage as for laughter; for anguish as for pleasure—and ultimately in forging transgressive and collective practices that are simultaneously critical, conflicted, and hopeful.