Every urban population believes in having its own collective psychology. One can ridicule this belief, but it has produced a lot of poetry, music and cinema that we are accustomed to valuing. The volume of poems about Parisian air or St. Petersburg’s weather is a sufficient justification for their architecture. However, if we don’t speak about art that is stimulated by a city but about art in the public space, then one should be very careful. The chance that any really good artwork can go through all possible channels that evaluate it is minimal. And, in general, art that is exhibited outside of arts institutions has to additionally identify itself as art. That makes art shown in the public space even more conservative than art shown within the framework of institutions.
—Boris Groys, excerpted from “6 Questions for Boris Groys”, Art Lies no. 58, p. 19
It is not important at all to me that you or anyone else should have this or that knowledge of anything written or recorded about my pictures of anyone else’s. It’s about experiencing the pictures, not understanding them. People now tend to think their experience of art is based in understanding the art, whereas in the past people in general understood the art and were maybe more freely able to absorb it intuitively. They understood it because it hadn’t yet separated itself off from the mainstream of culture the way modern art had to do. So I guess it is not surprising that, since that separation has occurred, people try to bridge it through understanding the oddness of the various new art forms. Cinema seems more of less still in the mainstream, as if it never had a ‘secession’ of modern or modernist artists against that mainstream. So people don’t tend to be so emphatic about understanding films, they tend to enjoy them and evaluate them: great, good, not so good, two thumbs up, etc. Although that can be perfunctory and dull, it may be a better form of response. Experience and evaluation — judgment — are richer responses than gestures of understanding or interpretations.
— Jeff Wall, excerpted from ‘An email exchange between Jeff Wall and Mike Figgis’, Contemporary, no. 65, 2005
There’s been plenty of talk lately in the news about the role of public art as Olafur Eliasson’s quartet of waterfalls were turned on last week. Some see the display as a way for the public to newly experience their urban surrounding (Mr. Eliasson has said that his intention was to draw fresh attention to the NYC’s waterways more than to himself or the art). Others questions the price tag: a bit over $15 million of privately-donated funds, although the money generated for the city by the tourism could well exceed that amount according to some sources.
As someone who doesn’t know very much about the critical discourse on public art (heck, I barely claim to understand “institutional” art), I find it useful to gauge the art by how the people who live around it interact with it. My first visit to Chicago coincided with the opening of Millennium Park, and I was engrossed by the sculptures, even if they are more “conservative” than the works shown in the nearby Art Institute. Perhaps not because of any transcendent message or societal insight, but because the crowd that had gathered there both day and night were having such a good time enjoying the works on display. Seeing kids laughing and playing around the Crown Fountain, adults smooshing their faces up against Anish Kapoor’s still partly-under-wraps Cloud Gate, it was all very fun and engaging. Not like other sculpture gardens I had been to! (Check out this relevant 37Signals article to see what I mean…) Another good example is Richard Serra’s Vortex at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth: it’s beautiful visually, but step inside and the sculpture takes on a totally different level of interactivity, with museum-goers quickly discovering the loud reverberations they can make by clapping, jumping, shouting, screaming.
Public art seems to draw suspicion from both the citizens that pay for it and live around it as well as the art critics — is that suspicion unfounded? Does public art suffer from those who regard it too highly (the “don’t touch!” signs at the Seattle garden) or from those who feel that art has to be understood rather than experienced? I’m glad that we have the AIPP here in Austin, and it’s good to see their map dotted with “in progress” works, I just hope they don’t turn out like the ill-fated and much-maligned Moments project.
I like this quote from Sports Illustrated writer Peter King that S.C. Squibb brought up on the ArtCal Zine blog:
Saw The Gates… Nice. Unusual. Great to see Central Park so packed with people and transformed into a pretty sight in the middle of a harsh winter. An enjoyable experience. But art? I don’t see it.