The Public Art Paradox

In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.

Oscar Wilde  in 1984
A Few Maxims For The Instruction Of The OverEducated


Not so long ago I stumbled upon a temporary art exhibition while passing through one of my city’s underground footways. Anticipating the usual stench of urine and excrement I took a last gasp of fresh air as I descended the subway’s stairs and prepared to rush my way through, but on this occasion the smell of human waste had been replaced by one of faint desperation. The art that I encountered at this exhibition was fairly unmemorable, what was striking however, was the unusual choice of space. Here were a group of artists so eager to get their art out into the world that they had resorted to utilising one of the city’s most underused and overlooked spaces. Be it from lack of opportunity, a sense of rectitude, or both, they—like so many of today’s public artists—had attempted to bypass the often impenetrable art institution and present their art to a broader public, and yet by resorting to one of the city’s most obscure corners, their attempt had somewhat failed.

This only helped to confirm an idea that has dominated my theoretical and practical research for the past few years: regardless of what form it takes, public art often possesses the same invisible quality as Robert Musil’s Monument… a rather dismal outlook for what might be contemporary art’s only refuge ‘outside’ the white box. Partly in a last-ditch effort to disprove this, I recently undertook an MFA with a focus on publicly engaged art, which provided me the opportunity to test this theory against my own (and my colleagues’) art production. But the experience only helped to reconfirm my findings with most the public work scarcely managing to communicate to anyone outside of the art milieu from where it emerged. And yet a steady increase in the number of artists engaging in the practice has prompted a snowball-like trend in publicly engaged art. Unsurprisingly the art market has been quick to pick up on this, and now at most major exhibitions, galleries, and art fairs, the art spills out of the white cube and into the surrounding streets, squares and plazas. For the most part this market-specific strain of public art epitomises the permanent “turd-in-the-plaza” stereotype, and it is this stereotype that will inevitably spring to mind when we hear the term ‘public art’. But the scope of publicly engaged art goes well beyond this.

Public as understood in Habermasian terms, is not defined by exteriority or locality, but rather an interplay of discursive modes of address and exchange. Under this definition the more traditional modes of exhibiting art might also be defined as public art, and both the dialogue-void perma-sculptures and the aforementioned example, which having been buried in an underground corner of the urban landscape, are lacking in their ability to be truly ‘public’. This is the paradox of public art: it is art that has been designed to be visible to the masses, but it very rarely manages to achieve this amidst an urban setting of ceaseless spectacle.

It is high time artists paused engaging in this seemingly-futile pursuit, and started questioning why public art is failing to achieve what it has been conceived to do: generate publicity. For public art to be fit to call itself ‘public’, it must render itself visible among the ceaseless spectacles that dominate civic life. But when the intended audience of public art (the public en masse) possess a tremendous ability to willingly ‘un-see’ much of the surrounding phantasmagoria, this is no easy feat. In our day-to-day movements, the new or unknown is not always a welcome sight, and so we develop mechanisms that allow us to filter out some of the noise and create distance between our subjects and the unknown. To borrow Ranciere’s words: “Human animals are distant animals who communicate through a forest of signs” (2011:10). And in our current state of mass consumption and mass-art production that forest has never before been so dense. Like the tourist that hides behind a camera photographing what is before them in an effort to record and process the unknown, often the intended audience of public art choose to take refuge behind the same production of distance.

But to suggest this phenomenon is one that has been individually created would be wrong. It is solely a creation of the art world (or late-capitalist) discourse, which has deemed us all “interpassive” subjects. Against this background, the legitimised object of art literally takes over activities from the audience. Like Zizek’s canned-laughter comparison, the institution narrates our expectations and experiences of art… without it, we simply don’t know when to laugh or where else to look for it. With this in mind, it is not only the function of ‘public’ in public art that is under question, but also its function as ‘art’. Interestingly the art that often does appear to us ‘outside’ this dominant discourse treads a very fine line between art-work and social-work. Favouring interaction over contemplation, this strain of socially engaged, relational art has emerged from the same social field—one that we have all undoubtedly helped to create.

This conundrum of public art will not be solved overnight. But the continuing privatisation of public space and cuts to arts sectors suggests public art faces an uncertain future. By continuing to produce such art, we might be questioning the authority of the art market, but we are simultaneously reconfirming it. To quote Andrea Fraser: “It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution” (2005:283). So quite like Wittgenstein’s ladder, public artists are using the only discourse available to them to question the same discourse that has sent them to the scrapyards of civic life. But in order to salvage any sense of logic, perhaps artists’ should be employing public art in order to question this authority; using the failures of public art to highlight exactly why it is failing.



This text is an extract of a paper: Rethinking the Boundaries of Public Art, written in fulfilment of the practice based MFA in Public Art at the Bauhaus Universität Weimar, 2014.

FRASER, A. (2005) “From the Critique of Institutions to the Institution of Critique” In Artforum 44 no. 1 (September) 275-283. 332

MUSIL, R. (1987) “Monuments” In Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, trans. by Wortsman, P, New York: Archipelago Books

RANCIÈRE, J. (2011) The Emancipated Spectator, trans. by Elliott, G. London: Verso

WILDE, O. (1894) “A Few Maxims For The Instruction Of The OverEducated” First published anonymously In Saturday Review (November 17)

ZIZEK, S. (1998) “The Interpassive Subject” In Traverses, Paris: Centre Pompidou, Available at: [Accessed: 3/7/14)

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  1. Malin

    “It is high time artists paused engaging in this seemingly-futile pursuit, and started questioning why public art is failing to achieve what it has been conceived to do: generate publicity. ”

    A rather limited take on the many ways public art can impact both people and environments, no?

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