Here is what happens when a new piece of public art appears: Somebody calls it ugly, then the artist comes forward to explain what they intended with the work, then the people who live near it express their delight or horror, and then an art expert comes along and patiently explains that art is sacred and if you can’t love it you have to respect it. After that pantomime is played out, the thing is either left alone, taken away or altered, depending on which actor is the loudest.
In the past few months, a tangle of multicoloured metal beams erected over a scruffy Toronto traffic island has cheesed off its neighbours, while a shiny chrome cow standing proud on stilts high above a suburban field in Markham was described as “scaring the children.” A Toronto fountain decorated with whimsical statues of dogs is considered “too cute” by art critics. An aluminum dragon hovering over a park path in Nanaimo, B.C., was vandalized, but a giant, faceless monster, resembling a hag fish with arms and legs, proved so popular with tourists it was moved from a private lakeside home.
Nothing upsets local people faster, nor prompts art experts to vigorous defensive stands, quite like public art. The conversations we have about public art are now as predictable as sitcom character reactions. The only place where public art is universally revered and its value never debated is North Korea.
That leads me to wonder why we need to have these looping, tiresome conversations about public art when the history of public art is so fluid? Granted, public art moves through culture much more slowly than, say, art on the auction block, but even the Sphinx has been altered, and attacked, over time.
Given this truth, we need a new formula for how public art is put before the actual public. First off, why must public art be permanent? Let’s create a system wherein public art is installed and then given a window of time, say five years, after which all the experts – from the resident who has to look at the thing every day, to the art consultant, to civic officials, to people like me who write about such things, and of course the artist – regroup and decide if the work stays or goes.
Second, let’s create a new set of markers for success. The “eat your bran” argument – art is good for you, especially when it’s unpleasant – is dead. Nobody has to listen to that lecture in an age when the entire art world, in all its manifestations, can be viewed on a phone. Cat videos won, deal with it.
Likewise, the “public art is for the public” argument – another way of saying that public art must always be charming and accessible – is kaput because limitless access to a personalized art collection also creates a culture in which there is no reliable definition of a generalized viewing “public,” nor is there anything remotely resembling an agreed upon standard for what is art and what is not art. Furthermore, both of these arguments are based on the presumption that a public art work is devised for, and must last, an eternity, be visible for generations. How silly. Nothing else created in contemporary culture labours under that burden. Rather the opposite is true.
What people want from public art is flexibility, works that both mirror and incorporate the protean times we live and thrive in. No more Ozymandias-like monuments, please (we all know how that turned out). Artistic “vision” and arrogance are sloppy kissing cousins. And you angry villagers, enough with the pitchforks and torches. Learn before you burn.
Public art, and our worn out discourses about public art, must become as malleable, open-ended and dynamic as the world they inhabit, or risk obsolescence.