"Sometimes overlooked, often misread, public art is a sign of life."
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Art Historian Patricia C. Phillips
"Public art implies significant social, political, and aesthetic agendas."
2 of 9
Patricia C. Phillips
"No single view of public space and the art that occupies it will work in a metropolis of multiple perspectives."
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Judith F. Baca
"Public art in the Eurocentric cultures has served the value systems and the purposes of an unbroken history of patriarchal dominance that has despoiled the earth and its inhabitants and seriously threatens the future. Responsible social intervention must hold up a different image. It must advance other value systems."
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Jo Hanson
"When she abandons certain mythologies of public in order to create new ones, the artist cannot be dismissive about the realities of place."
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Patricia C. Phillips
"An earlier heroic and modernist idea of public art suppressed the significant differences, while looking for some sort of normative and central idea of public. The big question for public artists and for critics is, how do we develop a public art that acknowledges and supports and enriches these differences while at the same time discovering how these differences contribute to an idea of public life that is, in fact, a kind of common ground?"
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Patricia C. Phillips
"New genre public art calls for an integrative critical language through which values, ethics, and social responsibility can be discussed in terms of art."
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Suzanne Lacy
"In a public art dialogue focused on the bureaucratic and the structural, the visionary potential of public art, its ability to generate social meaning, is lost."
8 of 9
Suzanne Lacy
"It is on the street that, it is felt, the work of art meets an uninformed and unwilling general public."
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Mary Jane Jacobs

Summary of Public Art

Whether a legally commissioned statue of a noted community leader in a town square or a slap dash stencil spray-painted guerrilla-style in the dark of midnight on a storefront, art frequently engages with audiences outside of galleries and museums. This art, meant for access by the world-at-large in public spaces, serves as a democratic way for an artist to express to the masses. Public Art thus becomes artwork for the populous, instigating through visuals, actions, ideas, and interventions, a participatory audience where none prior existed. While the public display of art objects is not a solely modern phenomenon, recent innovations in Public Art forms indicate critical redefinitions of concepts like community, collective identity, and social engagement.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Public Art's role serves multiple purposes, often simultaneously: to aesthetically beautify space, to educate, to commemorate important people and events, to act as a tool of political or social propaganda, to activate, to document daily life, and to represent a community's ethos.
  • Public Art appears in multiple forms that can mimic or depart from more traditional presentations of art including sculptures/statues, site-specific installations, murals, architecture, graffiti, actions, interventions, land and environmental art, performance, and more. Yet its main common denominator is its potential to be experienced within a discerned democratic and free sphere, bypassing the narrow and niche audiences of institutions and galleries.
  • Although Public Art's roots originated in officially sanctioned works to compel historical pride and connect communities through accessible culture, the 1970s saw an expansion of its usage as the ideas of public space as democratic canvas arose within the civil rights movements. Public Art's definition bloomed to encompass illegal Street Art, artist-initiated public interventions, urban renewal-based commissions, and personal expressions of contemporary artists beyond commercial or partisan limitations.
  • As Public Art has evolved to not just represent but to also engage with the public sphere many contemporary pieces are being designed with the relationship between the work and its audience in mind. This relationship becomes part of the artwork's intended message, impacting both artist and viewer, laying ground for myriad possibilities in experience and interpretation. These practices inform a wide umbrella of modern artistic categories including New Genre Public Art, Relational Aesthetics, Dialogical Art, and Participatory Art.
  • Critique and conflict continue to pepper the Public Art arena as the politics surrounding representation have become forefront within society. The rise of "cancel culture" has brought into question the validity and longevity of historical artworks that no longer resonate with contemporary thought just as artists tout the public space as one in which uncensored singular voices should perpetually have the right to flourish.

Overview of Public Art

Public Art Image

Public Art has existed for thousands of years, across numerous cultures and societies, and has served a range of functions.

Important Art and Artists of Public Art

El Pueblo y sus Falsos Líderes (The People and their False Leaders) (1935-1937)

Artist: José Clemente Orozco

The People and their False Leaders poses a mass of emaciated, bald, blind, and unclothed men (at the right) in opposition with a group of "leaders" (to the left), who appear plump and well fed, and are dressed in workers' overalls. While the gaunt figures are indistinguishable from one another, each of the leaders bears individualizing features. The mass of skeletal figures, with arms raised and fists clenched, attack the leaders, who recoil from the aggression. Several of the leaders hold tools and weapons (like saws and knives, symbolizing the use of force) as well as opened books, pointing to the pages (symbolizing the way that those in power use theory, recorded "history" and codified "knowledge" to strengthen and maintain their authority). Blood-red flames (which, for Orozco, symbolize energy and transformative force) lick up and outward from the attacking mass, threatening to consume the flammable books.

The work exists in the Enrique Díaz de León Auditorium of the former rectory of the University of Guadalajara, Mexico, where muralist José Clemente Orozco produced two murals during the late 1930s that deal with injustices suffered by the most vulnerable members of society, the hypocrisy of those in power, and the prevalence of violence in the country. Both murals demonstrate Orozco's Expressionist style and use of warm, bold colors. Although Orozco was well versed in theories of proportion and composition, he also believed that a true genius knows when to break those rules. Contemporary painter Roberto Rébora says, that "In Orozco a descriptive force cohabits in intimate relationship with geometry and technical drawing."

Like most Mexican Muralism, this work offers a message in alignment with Socialist ideals, highlighting the injustice of abuse of power by the ruling class wielded against the common man, and the resultant suffering of the latter. Having lived through, and fought in, the Mexican Revolution, Orozco tended to express strong emotions, violence, and torment in his works.

His decision to place this particular mural in a university auditorium was likely well-considered. Although much Mexican Muralism aimed to communicate to a largely illiterate audience, Orozco may have wished, for this commission, to communicate to the students, professors, and other intellectuals who would have attended lectures and other events in this space, that knowledge is power, and with great power comes great responsibility. In other words, the mural may have been intended as a reminder to this more literate and academically-minded audience that, as leaders in their local and national communities, they have a responsibility to ensure that their research and theories do not contribute to social injustice and the abuse of power. To this day, the auditorium continues to host academic lectures and events, and Orozco's murals speak to new generations.

Old Pioneers (1938)

Artist: Peter Hurd

This mural, painted for the city of Big Spring's Post Office, depicts a scene of family frontier life, with a father, mother, and their children standing heroically in front of their modest home. Big Spring's Signal Mountain is visible in the background, making the mural relevant to its local audience. The family is surrounded by farming equipment and plump poultry, indicating that they are industrious people whose work ethic allows them to prosper from the land. At the bottom of the mural, Hurd included a line from a Walt Whitman poem, which reads: "O Pioneers, democracy rests finally upon us, and our visions sweep through eternity." This line reinforces the main message of the work, that the nation was built on the backs of hard-working rural Americans, who therefore deserve to be honored as heroes.

The work, painted by artist Peter Hurd, is one of the many artworks that were sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Taking a cue from the Mexican Muralists, these pieces aimed to motivate and empower the American public in order to work towards progress and prosperity following the Great Depression. They presented the hard-working citizen focused on the importance of agricultural labor, and the core "American" values such as close-knit family units.

Time Landscape (1965-present)

Artist: Alan Sonfist

In 1965, Alan Sonfist began planning this work, which wouldn't be installed (or rather, planted) for another thirteen years. The project involved planting a variety of plant species that had been indigenous to the New York City area in pre-colonial times, on a 25 by 40 foot rectangular plot of land belonging to the Department of Transportation, at the corner of La Guardia Place and West Houston Street in Manhattan. Sonfist explained, "As in war monuments that record the life and death of soldiers, the life and death of natural phenomena such as rivers, springs, and natural outcroppings need to be remembered."

As in many of his Land Art projects, Sonfist began Time Landscape by undertaking extensive research on New York's regional botany, geology, and history, and he designed the artwork to grow and evolve naturally, making Mother Nature a co-collaborator in his work.

The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation explains, "When it was first planted, Time Landscape portrayed the three stages of forest growth from grasses to saplings to grown trees. The southern part of the plot represented the youngest stage and now has birch trees and beaked hazelnut shrubs, with a layer of wildflowers beneath. The center features a small grove of beech trees (grown from saplings transplanted from Sonfist's favorite childhood park in the Bronx) and woodland with red cedar, black cherry, and witch hazel above groundcover of mugwort, Virginia creeper, aster, pokeweed, and milkweed. The northern area is mature woodland dominated by oaks, with scattered white ash and American elm trees. Among the numerous other species in this miniforest are oak, sassafras, sweetgum, and tulip trees, arrowwood and dogwood shrubs, bindweed and catbrier vines, and violets."

Curator Todd Alden says of the work, "Neither a park nor a wilderness preserve, Sonfist's unusual hybrid combining both backward and forward-looking registrations radically re-conceived not only the idea of what a public monument might be (as a means of historical commemoration), but it also proposed nothing less than a re-formulated possibility frontier for art itself, including also man's historical (and future) relationship to nature."

Moving into the second half of the twentieth century, many artists began to focus on the contemporary dilemmas associated with environmental destruction, a problem that was increasingly being seen as having potential to affect the global population. In response to growing ecological concerns, land artists opted to create site-specific works that would not only highlight the threat of these issues, but that also employed carefully selected sites and natural (often living) materials as opposed to merely installing unnatural man-made constructions into public spaces. Many of these artists, like Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, and Robert Smithson tended to execute Land Art projects in remote locations like deserts and dried-up lakes.

On the other hand, Sonfist chose to bring Land Art to densely populated urban environments, highlighting the importance of preserving nature within city centers. He explains, "My feeling is that if we are going to live within a city, we have to create an understanding of the land. And that includes suburban dwellers as well. We have to come to a better understanding of who we are and how we exist on the planet."

Useful Resources on Public Art

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper

"Public Art Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper
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First published on 18 Sep 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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