Public Servants is the second book in the revived Critical Anthologies in Art and Culture series, whose first run, between 1984 and 2004, produced six volumes—including Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, which became a critical classic by taking up the challenge of defining postmodernism in its early phase.
Public Servants is just as much of its moment, engaging as it does the recent turn of art toward concern with public life. But Burton and her collaborators intend more than a survey of the artworks we’ve come to label public or public practice or socially engaged. The essays here, many reprinted and some commissioned, take on multiple aspects of the whole contemporary relationship between art and the public: sociological, theoretical, and philosophical as well as art-historical.
At the outset, the editors render a notable service by grappling with the word public itself and reminding those of us who use it unreflectively that its field of meaning is wide—and paradoxical. For placemakers, it can point to physical space set aside for the democratic interaction of citizens; as a “sphere,” it can mean a zone freed from the demands of the market—or a realm controlled by the needs of the political state. And, of course, it can simply stand for art that’s outdoors.
The issues don’t end with semantics; technological and political change are redefining what each of these “publics” actually is and may become. Social media, for example, are reconfiguring the very idea of the public, while in many countries the state-as-public-sector is under fire both from the ideologues of the free market and the grassroots activists of the Left.
The roles that the arts are playing and could play in this rapidly shifting sociocultural scene is the theme of Public Servants. Accounts of actual projects—for example, a remarkable initiative that enlists artists to create images of the real or imagined outside world, as requested by prisoners in solitary confinement—rub shoulders with dense essays on the interaction between the market and meritocracy and the legacy of Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere.
A “Portfolio” of artists’ first-person accounts of their experiences working in public realms adds authority to the mix. Mel Chin speaks, I suspect, for many artists as well as others in Trump’s America when he writes: “If, while living and working, you become aware you are in a compromised system, then you had better do something or say something about it…. I thank goodness that the processes I have at my disposal are excellent for momentary liberation.”