Okkupation I What Art in the Public Space Can Achieve

What Art in the Public Space Can Achieve

von Martina Reuter




"...Public space can be described negatively: It is the non-private space, the non-museum space, the non-art space..." I 1 IView: http://www.kunstmuseum.ch/andereorte/ texte/mlandert/mlgrundf.htm


This sentence is a beautiful example of the confusion of terms such as 'public space' and 'art in public space'. The only correct thing in the sentence is the conclusion that public space is not private space. But neither does public space allow itself to be described merely negatively, nor is it non-museum space or non-art space. Most museums are public spaces, even if there is an entry fee. Many are of the opinion that public space is everything located outside of buildings, that has no roof or no walls. In this case, public space is mistaken for 'open' space. This would explain why the public space is seen as non-art space, since there are no walls for art - where else could you hang the pictures?


The question of what distinguishes public from private space is socially determined. In democratic societies public space is defined by the possibility of co-determination by all citizens entitled to vote - to co-decide about the public space through citizens' initiatives, through petition for a referendum etc., it is as simple as that. Because the citizens are the owners of the public space, they pay taxes for elected representatives to obtain and administer the public space. And even the increasing selling-off of public institutions and the privatisation of the public space, about which it is sometimes complained, are approved of by many citizens of democratic societies.

For example, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin counts as a state museum and therefore as a public space - it is financed and administered by public means. If the citizens had serious objections towards an art purchase, which was too expensive in their eyes, they would - at least theoretically - have the option to resist. Either they could elect another representative, which they would assume to be more responsible in their dealings with taxpayers' money, or they could form a citizens' initiative, or induce a petition for a referendum, etc. But this option does not exist for the public in regards to a private museum.



This does not mean that the art which is presented in publicly financed museums automatically becomes art in public space, just as art installations outside of buildings are not necessarily art in public space. Even if the unfortunate term may suggest so, art in public space is not defined through the site it is placed in or the site where it is to take place, but through its content concerning the site or concerning matters of public interest.

Certainly art in public space can take place in the space of a museum, for instance, if the art piece refers to the content of the museum as a public institution, whose very purpose is scrutinised or expanded. However, art installed on private initiative and on the private grounds of a shopping centre devoted to the aesthetic edification of the visitor, is not art in the public space, although it has public access and is under open sky.


Maybe this understanding of art in public space mainly originates from the much-discussed 1953 exhibition 'Plastik im Freien' in Hamburg. The ambition of the show - which seemed exceptional at the time - was to present artworks outside the museum. But the sculptures were never designed for their location and therefore were museum art. Actually, the only exceptional fact was that the plentiful sculptures already adorning the world's cities were never designed for the museum, but instead referred to the context of the particular site. So they had already fulfilled the criteria of a site-specific artwork. The history of 'art in public space' in Germany differs to that of England or America. English-language essays on 'art in public space' or 'public art' often refer all the way back to antiquity and fundamentally discuss the social function and content of art in public space. Whereas the equivalent German essays refer to the artists' existential orientation and describe the beginning of public art as an movement toward autonomy. This meant an urge for independence from clerical and feudal clients, then from museums and finally from state-fostered 'site-specific art' programmes, which may be well-meaning but are also obsolete from art's development. Only in the 1970s did art in public space slowly become what it stands for today.


Through art in public space many artists have turned their attention toward social themes and therefore given art a purpose beside or even outside of its aesthetic function. This is especially criticised by defenders of a misguided idea of artistic autonomy. Autonomy should be equal to independence of social purpose and function. One could almost think, that 'site-specific art' programmes are more compatible with art than a mosaic on a community building.

But there must be something that makes art in public space different from other art statements. An artwork set up at Hermannplatz in Neuk├Âlln, but that could just as easily been set up in the foyer of a private office building in Riga / Lettland, appears as nothing more than one of the sculptures installed in the open space of Hamburg in 1953, and therefore can not necessarily be understood as art in public space.


Art in public space can have different functions. It may refer to a historical or actual meaning of the site, it may intervene with the site, or it may draw attention to present matters of public interest. Referring to a historical or actual meaning could be, for example, a memorial to the holocaust or an agitation against a city-planning project. An intervention with the site could be a sound installation that makes the city noise more bearable or the organising of medical supplies for the homeless where there was none previously.

For instance, art in public space can draw attention to themes such as globalisation, which is of public concern, and then intervene also with the private space. One artist staged such a themed event a few years ago: In the changing rooms of an international fashion chain store, very popular with young girls, she secretly stuck information on the garment labels informing precisely how much - or rather how little - women in the third world earned in sewing clothes for this company.

Drawing attention to deficiencies, grievances and shortfalls through art in public space is claimed to lose efficiency because of a competing abundance of information in newspapers, books, TV and the internet. Its effect, though, lies in opposition to the aforementioned media - in the suddenness of its confrontation.


And art is capable of even more. The term 'art' has changed over the centuries and with that the function of art - its purpose - has changed. For many centuries the word 'art' stood for science, knowledge, and capability, without referring to any aesthetic matters. Therefore, aesthetics is not an inherited condition and is by no means identical to art, as is so readily assumed. Because art is not bound to any everlasting meaning, but is a socially agreed term, it therefore has changed and expanded its fields of action since the 1970s. Artists take over duties concerning the forming of society and environment. Neither canvas nor colour, stone nor chisel are of necessity to be a 'shaping' artist. There is also no reason why an artist's work should remain fictional or exemplary, symbolic or 'agitatory'. They can just as well work with real conditions and change - apart from drawing attention to social problems or deficits these can also be solved through art.


If art in public space is defined by its social function, it becomes obvious that it has been there for long. Even baroque sculptors produced objects with the intention of having an effect on public space. The only question is for whom the artists work - are they acting in their own interest, do they define their intentions on their own behalf, or do they become an instrument of their client? Increasingly the concern is being voiced that art in public space is instrumentalised in particular, because it is so often initiated directly for the purpose of solving city planning problems.

But it is strange to observe that as long as art in public space only meets simple aesthetic or entertainment functions critics are indifferent as to whom the art serves, even if it supports the interests of its clients by means of manipulative aesthetics or distracting entertainment.

A social purpose agreement for art does not mean misappropriation or misuse of art by its clients. The decision about to whom art is dedicated - and it is always dedicated to something - is made only by the artist. Some artists decide to produce art for the art market, which is ruled by the art market's means of supply and demand, others produce art for the public space. And the art market cannot be prevented from 'museumising' some artworks in public space and by so doing transporting them into the market system.

Similarly, the public cannot be prevented from making use of works which are not meant for the public.


That the public space is being lost, as has recently often been stated, is not because of semi-mystical cultural shifts. It is because of neo-liberal economy strategies, which sadly are also supported by politics. A perfect example of the sell-out of the state through privatisation and decreasing of taxes are to be found in Brazilian cities. The neo-liberal winners seal themselves off from the losers by living in private well-guarded areas, insulated by high walls - settlements with romantic names such as 'Alphaville'. Meanwhile, the losers are deserted by the state (or rather by that which is called 'the state'). The neo-liberal economy has no democratic or social duty - these are supposed to be the responsibility of the state. Only as long as the state is capable of functioning and has not been sold off, can it by democratic means (and there are plenty of means) be reminded of its duties and held responsible.


Art in public space can and shall participate in these processes. It can transport the importance of the public space to the people, make them act and make them participate in debates on public themes and be co-determiners in the democratic society.



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