The Gospel of Public Art

“In public art, we don’t have a shared, overriding theology, ideology, or pedagogy. There are no standards, no universally accepted rights and wrongs.”

Jack Becker
Forecast Public Art founder

Photo by Dan Marshall

I like to go on road trips with my friend Scott, a philosopher, sculptor, and boat builder. We have lengthy conversations, speculating about the size and nature of the universe, debating the big bang theory. Folks like Scott gravitate to the mysteries of life, while others require hard facts (I’m from Missouri, the “show me” state, but I like a good fantasy). I postulate that, if zero is the unknowable and one is the known, we humans all reside somewhere in between. Of course there’s an infinitely long spectrum between total assurance and complete uncertainty. But, as Scott points out, reality is a mental construct, and we all perceive things differently—however slightly. We all judge things differently, too.

An important topic of conversation in the public art world today is assessment. How do we measure what constitutes “good” in public art when art lives somewhere between 0 and 1? What might be considered good in Boise might not in Chicago. The “average Joe” at the bus stop may have a different opinion of a work’s success than a funder. There is a dearth of research efforts focusing on public art and its impact. The evidence is mostly anecdotal. Some attempts have focused specifically on economic impact, but this doesn’t tell the whole story, nor even the most important stories.

In public art, we don’t have a shared, overriding theology, ideology, or pedagogy. There are no standards, no universally accepted rights and wrongs. There’s no job description or rulebook for a public artist. Perhaps we need a Ten Commandments of Public Art:

  1. Place art and artists at the center of the public art sphere, and be supportive of all artistic disciplines—permanent and temporary.
  2. Consider the common good, our shared environment, and enjoyment by the public.
  3. Honor all participants in the process and promote mutual respect—be mindful, ethical, professional, and open to different opinions.
  4. Utilize fair contracts that provide adequate time, compensation, clear scope, and decent working conditions for artists and clients.
  5. Documentation, promotion, and criticism should fairly represent the work, and be freely accessible for educational use.
  6. The content of a public art project should consider its context.
  7. Use all materials and technology wisely.
  8. Do not commission art that cannot properly be maintained within its appropriate lifetime.
  9. Be thoughtful when siting a work of art and don’t expect artists to fix every problem or address every issue.
  10. Pursue the creation of high-quality public art with originality, innovation, spirit, vision, and courage, and strike a chord in the hearts and minds of broad and diverse audiences.

Two artists I had the pleasure of knowing and who successfully carried their visions into the public realm are Dennis Oppenheim and Richard Posner, both of whom have recently passed on into the great beyond (see obits in Public Art Review issue 44).

Oppenheim was a brazen pioneer who often ventured into the unknown. He never shied from a challenge. He took on all kinds of subjects, including religion itself. His Device to Root Out Evil (first shown in Venice in 1997 and later installed in Vancouver) was a simple, Puritan church structure, tipped upside down—pointing to hell instead of heaven. Some viewers thought it fun, some complained it spoiled the view, and some declared it blasphemous. It was removed and later found a home in Calgary.

Posner was a young rebel with an acerbic wit who asserted his independence and challenged assumptions at every turn. As San José public art program manager Barbara Goldstein eloquently remarked in an emailed eulogy, “Richard employed his work to tackle issues of war and peace, consumerism, and social justice…holding a mirror up to the compromises and hypocrisy that many of us are resigned to accept daily…. In my mind, the best legacy we can offer Richard is to continue his commitment to employing public art as a means to provoke thought about our society and using our skills to heal our world and make it a more just and equitable place.”

With the world in crisis and people looking for solutions, it’s no surprise that artists like these are employing their creative talents to raise questions and address challenging issues. Good public art is not just about looking good.

I often feel like Public Art Review is my “good book” and I’m on a mission to spread the gospel of public art. The “word” in my book is public and it means that everyone is in the audience for public art. The public artists addressing the problems and all the bad in the world—going where no artists have gone before—are serving humankind in their own unique ways. The value of Richard’s and Dennis’s work is undeniable, despite the fact that it’s hard to measure with any accuracy. Just take my word for it, for goodness sake.

Jack Becker is the founder of the nonprofit Forecast Public Art, publisher of Public Art Review.

Originally included as the Publisher’s Note in Public Art Review #44.