Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context, and Controversy
Review by John A. O'Connor of the book Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context, and Controversy [New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1992, 314 p.].
Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context and Controversy is an anthology (twenty two essays) that was developed from the editors' work on the Winter 1989 Art Journal - an issue devoted to public art. The book is divided into four parts. Part 1, Defining National Values: American Monuments, Murals, and Memorials deals with traditional categories of public art with a view toward understanding ways in which it conveys overt and covert national values. Part 2, Politics, Patronage and Public Art, discusses patronage in the context of national and local politics, and how it has affected both the form and content of a variety of public art. Part 3, Public Art and Public Response is concerned with the controversial aspects of public art. Part 4, New Directions in Public Art addresses public art during the last twenty years. Clearly, this book represents an ambitious and serious attempt to thoroughly cover the difficult and problematic arena of public art.
Critical Issues in Public Art is an important contribution to the literature on public art which is a highly visible, frequently controversial, politically charged hybrid. The editors note that the anthology is not a history of public art, but anyone looking for serious discussion of public art issues and history will find that the exceptional range of essays included will serve as a first rate introduction to both.
One of the most thought-provoking essays in the entire volume is Rosalind Deutsche's Public Art and Its Uses - particularly when she informs us that the real social function of new public art (is) to reify as natural the conditions of the late capitalist city into which it hopes to integrate us. She goes on to point out that the of neighborhoods (incorporating this new public art) has a racist side and is a technocratic vision ....that can only perpetuate alienation....
One of the most interesting and exasperating things about public art is its capacity to provoke controversy, and Michele Bogart reminds us in The Rse and Demise of Civic Virtue that there is nothing new about all of this. In fact, proponents of Civic Virtue were as insensitive to the suffragettes then as some contemporary artists (and others) are to women today. This essay addresses additional concerns that still pervade the public art arena such as appropriateness, style, alienation of the audience, conditions for removing public art, and politicians maneuvering to be on the most popular side of the issue - or, more typically, to be on both sides of the issue at the same time. Other essays discuss gay liberation (via George Segal's scupture Gay Liberation), racial isues (a chapter devoted to Robert Graham's Monument to Joe Louis), the Rocky stature controversy in Philadelphia, the Chicago Picasso, et cetera.
Notwithstanding its flaws, this book should be put to excellent use by anyone involved in the public art process and interested in the arts and public policy, and it should be required reading by all public servants, who shape policy - particularly our elected ones who perpetually reinvent, through their continued ignorance of the history and purpose of public arts, conflicts and crises that enrage the public and call into question the very worth of art itself.