The meaning of public art is a constant source of debate. For the side that believes in its ability to foster community dialogue, and of which I am a member, public art can be an engaging and thought-provoking catalyst on the state of reality. Then there are those who for a variety of reasons believe that art is a private affair and should only be perused and discussed within the gentle confines of galleries, studios, and museums. The problem for both sides is that neither perspective remains static because art, both public and private, has to be evaluated in the social context in which it was both produced and displayed.
Rachel Whiteread’s public spectacle, House, provides an excellent opening of the debate. In an interesting twist and public relations coup, House won both the prestigious Turner Award for best artist as well as the satirical K Foundation’s Worst Artist of the Year Award for Ms. Whiteread. This fact illustrates the wide-ranging and controversial nature of her concrete cast of a London East-Side housing tenement. Ms. Whiteread herself was confounded by her newfound notoriety.
She commented on the unique situation in a 2007 Guardian Magazine. “I was used to making work in the studio. With this, everything was immediately very public and people had their say at once. I had to take a deep breath and step aside” (Higgins). It was clear to both her and the receiving public and critics that her artwork had struck a latent chord in the community and that in doing so the artwork itself took on a new life of its own upon its unveiling. This is the most important distinction between private and public art.
In both form and function, House epitomizes the capacity of public art as a conduit for social commentary. It sheer size and gray concrete blocks, window frames, and wiring gave the piece an immensity of scale that was hard to ignore. I agree with New York Times art writer Roberta Smith when she effectively describes House as being ‘not abstract, but rather a mute and ghostly version of reality’ (Smith, 1). It both reflected and re-imagined Ms. Whiteread’s perspective of the current state of her society. Complementing its visual aesthetic is the fact that Ms.
Whiteread chose to build it in a run-down neighborhood reflects an interest in preserving and remodeling older neighborhoods as opposed to the destruction and then construction of new artifices. It acts as both a commentary on the social circumstances of urban decay as well as a critique of the prevailing public policy towards low-income livelihood. House would not have created such a vast impact and controversy if it had been constructed in a private setting, such as a gallery or a museum as opposed to the streets of London’s East End.
Public art and House in particular carries such great weight precisely because of its existence in the public domain. Public art literally presents itself equally to the everyday citizen walking a pet as it does to the art connoisseur. The audience does not even necessarily have to consider or acknowledge that it is, in fact, a piece of art. In a certain sense, public art democratizes the act of art appreciation (or the contempt for art as the case may be). That House received such conflicting responses speaks to heart of the debate surrounding art in general, and public art especially.
Some people believe that art shouldn’t stray away from its designated institutions because of art’s ability to provoke intense reactions. There is validity to this perspective, especially in regard to the habits of some artists that can only provoke responses through vulgarity and shock tactics. There are those people who believe only in ‘high-art’. They too argue that capital-A Art should remain in fine art museums and galleries for fear of art being destroyed or vandalized in the public sphere.
These patrons of the Arts also maintain an elitism that holds that only certain sectors of society should be able to decide the value and merits of Art for they are the ones with the discerning class and taste. Coincidentally, these two anti-public art positions effectively create a chasm between themselves. This weakening of unity can be evidenced by the huge swelling of support in favor of keeping House as a public installation beyond its original destruction date. Over 3,300 signatures were rounded up and filed in a petition to House of Commons in the Parliament fighting for its right to existence.
In the end, the House voted against the petition by a single vote, that of House member Mr. Flounders, who made the true enough argument that just because some people liked and supported the exhibit, that did not mean that everybody like it (Smith, 2). The fact that the debate reached the level of Parliament is a testament to the audacity of the project and the reactions it stirred. There is no such thing as the True meaning of House, or for public art in general. Personally I think that is arts most invigorating aspect. In both form and function, art can speak, even silently, of and to the conditions which produced it.
Public art can transcend the normal boundaries of the official art institutions in ways that even the artist cannot predict, as in Ms. Whiteread’s production. With that being the case, let the debate rage on for the greater benefit of the creative collective conscious. References Higgins, C. (2007). Rachel Whiteread Turner Prize Winner 1993. The Guardian. Retrieved November 20, 2008, from http://www. guardian. co. uk/artanddesign/2007/sep/08/art10 Smith, R. (2003). The Best of Sculptors, the Worst of Sculptors. The New York Times. Retrieved November 20, 2008, from http://query. nytimes. com/gst/fullpage. html
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