Public Art or Art in Public Places: Who Decides?
Leo Segedin   |   December 10, 2008 |   Print this essay

We might think that, in a democracy, the public would have the right to decide or at least have a say through its representatives on what kinds of artworks are installed in public places. After all, it is the public that has to look at them. It is often the public that has to pay for them. And, certainly, at the very least, we would expect that they be made so that the public is able to understand them. But, in fact, the public has had nothing to do such decisions and is often puzzled or offended by what they see. Who does make such decisions? Why are artworks that people cannot understand installed in public places? A 17 foot high statue of basketball star Michael Jordan in front of the United Center may be understandable, but what does the 50 feet high "Picasso" on Daley Plaza mean? What does it have to do with Chicago or its public?


Typically, publicity pronouncements justifying public art do not touch on such issues. They describe only its positive values and, with glowing language, claim that such art will uplift the life of the community. This is from the Newport News Public Art Foundation:

…public art attracts attention. By its presence alone public art can heighten our awareness, question our assumptions, transforms a landscape, or express community values, and for these reasons it can have the power, over time to transform a city's image… It has the power to energize our public spaces, arouse our thinking and transform the places where we live, work, and play into more welcoming and beautiful environments that invite interaction…

All this sounds great. Such objectives are admirable, but they are obviously idealistic. They certainly do not touch on the problem of such art's public incomprehensibility. As promotions for such projects, they cannot give any indication of the issues involved in installing an artwork in a public place. They also must avoid the controversies that contemporary artworks can provoke, as well as the political conflicts - the sometimes less than uplifting motives - that often underlie their installation.

Such issues did not confront the public before the 1960s. For thousands of years, the significance of public art and the right of public authorities to install it were seldom questioned. Statues and paintings in public places glorified the power of pharaohs, emperors, Caesars and kings; images of gods, saints and other holy figures have been worshipped in temples and churches. Such works were publicly funded, but although the people who saw them had nothing to say about how they should look, everyone knew what they meant. Even in this country, when monuments are erected honoring presidents, generals and war heroes or commemorating great historical events, no one questions what they refer to and why they are there.

But, today, in Chicago's Loop alone, there are over 20 works of art in public places, works recognized during the last 40 years as important aspects of the city's cultural environment, which have no public referent. We have come to take for granted the "Picasso" in the Daley Plaza, Oldenburg's "Batcolumn" in front of the Social Security Bldg. on Madison St., Dubuffet's "Monument with Standing Beast" in front of the State of Illinois Bldg. and Calder's "Flamingo" in the Federal Center Plaza. We may make a special trip to Millennium Park in the Loop to see Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate". We even know the names of the artists who designed these objects. I doubt, however, that anyone can tell just by looking at them what any of these works mean or what they have to do with Chicago. As a result, we are free to project any meanings we want into them.


Perhaps the most famous of such artworks in Chicago, the first in a major public space, installed in 1967, is what has come to be known as the "Picasso". It is 50 ft. high, weighs 162 tons, and is made of Cor-ten steel by specially developed manufacturing techniques. It has become the most popular work of art in Chicago, a source of civic pride, a symbol, an icon, of the city. And yet no one knows what it means. Picasso had never been to Chicago. He never named it, so we have no idea what he intended. As a result, it is open to anybody's interpretation. It has been said to be a portrait of Picasso's wife, Jacqueline, a representation of his Afghan dog and a combination of the two. For some, it depicts a woman's body with wide hips; others have called it a bird, a baboon, a phoenix, a Viking helmet, an aardvark, a sea horse, a nun and Barbara Streisand. Mayor Daley thought it represented the wings of Justice. According to the Emporis website, if you look at the Picasso sculpture from the northeast, you will see the profile (ala Hitchcock) of the first Mayor Daley.

To the Chicago Public Art Program, the agency responsible for promoting such artworks, however, the issue of public comprehension is irrelevant. Rather than explaining how well it reflects anything significant about Chicago, it claims that such art in public places "will enhance Chicago's stature as a national leader in public art…". It takes no position as to what the "Picasso" represents or means. As far as it is concerned:

While the opinions of the sculpture's subject matter may vary, it is acknowledged (by whom?) as a monumental achievement in Cubism, the artist's style pioneered and explored by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso and his French contemporary, Georges Braque, between 1907 and 1911. "The Picasso" is an exemplary work of Cubism, in it use of multiple perspectives, combining frontal and profile views in a single vantage point.

In other words, the "Picasso" is described as a major work in the history of Modern Art, its significance established by its high status in the international art world. William Hartmann, the art collector who convinced Picasso to offer the maquette for his sculpture to the city, said that "we wanted the sculpture to be the work of the greatest artist alive." A work by Picasso would thus make Chicago internationally famous as a cultural art center. As with other such installations, popular understanding of Modern Art was beside the point. At best, Chicagoans may have been expected to "get cultured" by exposure to the "Picasso", or, to put it another way, become enlightened as a result of this painless popularization of elitist values.

More importantly, however, as a result of its international popularity, the "Picasso" would be a tourist attraction and, therefore, good for the economy of the city. As far as I know, no scientific research has been done on this subject, but according to the estimates of Jack Becker, artistic director of Public Art Review, 55 million viewers experience public art first hand every day, approximately 1,000 times the audience experiencing art galleries, museums and theaters combined. Public art receives 10 times the media attention other art forms receive. An average public art project provides 50 times the economic impact of art events in traditional venues. For example, a few years ago, Chicago's "Cows on Parade" generated more than $200 million for the city - no taxpayer's dollars were used. And yet, although such displays were lots of fun, no one could tell why sculptures of cows were on the streets of Chicago.


This absence of public meaning can be found in other contemporary artworks in public spaces. In fact, we can say that none of these works have public meanings or references at all, at least none that can be determined by their appearance. Even when the subject matter is evident, such as a baseball bat in "Batcolumn", its meaning and relevance is not clear. Although the Chicago Public Art Guide claims that it was inspired by Chicago's skyscrapers, chimney stacks, neo-classical columns, steel bridge cross-bracing and construction cranes, "Batcolumn" obviously remains a representation of a baseball bat. It has more to do with the fame of Claes Oldenberg and 1960's Pop art than the city. It certainly has nothing to do with Social Security.

Although they are in public places, such artworks are not works of public art because they do not refer to anything having to do with the public. They are rather works of Fine Art in public places. In fact, especially since the 1960's, the period from which many of these works were chosen, most Fine Art not only has had nothing to do with the public; it has had nothing directly to do with politics, culture, society, or, in fact, anything to do with the outside world at all. Such artworks are self-referential. They are artworks about art and, as such, they do not have or need public references. But public artworks do; that's what makes them public artworks. Contemporary artworks function, not as representations with civic meanings, but rather as art objects that ideally requires aesthetic responses and knowledge of Fine Art. Without such public references, since most people are ignorant about Cubism and other Modern and Contemporary art, these works have become virtual Rorschachs which can be interpreted, enjoyed or reviled however any individual feels.

Of course, artworks can be given literal meanings with labels. For example, Virginio Ferrari work, at the intersection of Ontario, Ohio and Orleans, called "Being Born", consists primarily of circular elements. According to the Chicago Public Art Program, "Being Born" "celebrates both art and technology and pays tribute to the industry that commissioned and fabricated it". The sculptor explains, "The circular element "symbolizes the precision and skill of this industry. The two stainless steel elements fit exactly into each other, symbolizing the process of die making." TCPAP continues, "The openness of the outer circle suggests that the industry continues to grow." Frank Stella's controversial, "Town-Ho's Story", at the Ralph Metcalfe Federal Building on Jackson Blvd, is an abstract combination of several small metal sculptures covered with molten aluminum. According to Robert K. Wallace, a Melville scholar and author of a book about Stella, "The sculpture takes its name from a chapter of Melville's novel that is a tale about Steelkilt, an audacious sailor who uses both mind and fist to resist mistreatment". In the same way, two totally abstract oil paintings by William Conger, called "Intersections", at the 18th District Police station are said to celebrate "the rich history, cultural complexity and urban atmosphere of the neighborhoods served by the Near North police facility." Without this printed information, there is no way of telling that this is what they mean.


Public ignorance about contemporary art raises questions about how people respond to such artworks. As people become familiar with them, contemporary artworks become less baffling and can be enjoyed without any understanding of their underlying art concepts. Cloud Gate, in Millennium Park, its popularity indicated by its affectionate nickname, the "Bean", is derived from Pop and Minimalist ideas, but the distorting, shifting reflections of the buildings, the plaza, the sky, and especially of the surrounding people on its shiny surfaces creates a delightful, if unsettling experience without that knowledge. Even the reflections on the arched space underneath, which requires that the viewer look upward, produces an almost mystical experience.

But such artworks can also repel. What happens when people finds an artwork unpleasant or disturbing? What happens when the rights of the artist conflicts with the rights of the public? Minimalist artist, Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc", a 120 feet long and 12 feet high wall of raw, rusting steel, was installed in 1986 on the plaza at the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building, in New York City. The artist intended it to manipulate pedestrian movement through the plaza as an aesthetic experience, but the public did not see it that way. At the time, Serra was quoted as saying, "I don't think the function of art is to be pleasing. Art is not democratic. It is not for the people." Apparently, he was right. For the people who worked in the Federal Building, it had no public or aesthetic meanings at all. It was merely a disruptive, irritating obstacle to pedestrian traffic across the plaza. After provocation by an activist, anti-contemporary art group, Federal Building workers went to court and, in 1989, after three years of contentious court proceedings, the jury, in a 4-1 jury decision, decided that it should be removed. Although art experts claimed that it was a major work of art, "Tilted Arc" was cut into three pieces by Federal workers one night and carted away to a scrap-metal yard.

Such government actions raise several important issues regarding art in public places. What role does government funding play in determining the disposition of a funded work? What rights does the artist have in determining the character of his or her work? What part does the public play in determining the value of a work? Should popularity be a factor? Such issues have not and probably never can be resolved.


There are, as I've said, some public artworks whose significance is self evident - the Lincoln and Jefferson monuments in Washington, D.C., for example. Such artworks honor great Americans in the same way great political figures have been idealized for thousands of years. They are often in the Classical, European style that dominated art in the United States at the time they were built. This is the same style that gave status to government buildings and banks in the 19th century, so that most people are familiar with them. The Lincoln Memorial is like a Roman temple in which Lincoln looms as a troubled god or Caesar. Likewise, the Washington Monument reflects the obelisks of ancient Egypt and Rome. The responses to these artworks are enhanced by their monumentality, their location, the angle from which an observer is forced to see them, as well as their association with great civilizations of the past.

There is, however, one major exception to such obvious imagery and which is contemporary in design. Perhaps the most effective work of public art in the U.S. today is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Unlike other monuments in Washington, rather than rising high above the ground, it is cut into the ground. Its total length is almost 500 feet, at its deepest point is over 10 feet deep and is laid out as a symmetrical "V". It slopes gradually down to the middle and rises the same way at the other end. It consists of two walls of shiny black granite meeting in the center at about a 125 degree angle. One end points to the Washington Monument, the other to the Lincoln Monument, the only subtle symbolism evident. There are over 58,200 names of those killed or missing during the war engraved on the wall, new ones being added as they are confirmed. The names are listed in the order in which they were killed, so that the chronology and history of the war is subtly implicit, the number of dead increasing as the war continued.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is unique in that it does not depend on obvious symbolism or traditional art historical references. It does not impress with its beauty, its scale or its position on a high pedestal. It cannot even be seen until one is almost on top of it. Even though the work was dedicated in 1982 and is in a Post-modern, Minimalist style, its effectiveness requires no knowledge of contemporary art. It does not need labels, explanations or hype. And yet, it has become the most popular memorial in Washington, D.C., if not the country. Intended to unify a country deeply split over the war, it does not glorify or idealize and has no political agenda. It takes no position on the war. It functions as a kind of therapeutic catharsis, especially for the Vietnam veterans who have adopted it as their own. Those who know who the names inscribed represent feel close to the dead, leave mementoes - notes, flowers, birthday cards, make rubbings of the names. The polished black granite reflects the viewers' presence so that their own images are part of their experience. The public response to the work is emotional and intense; even those who know no one personally who died in Vietnam often cry as they approach and proceed through the memorial. No one laughs; conversation is low key, almost as if the visitor was in a religious shrine. As one visitor to the memorial described the experience:

…In making this descent, you feel as if you are entering a cloistered space, set off from the busy surroundings. Streets and skylines disappear to leave you alone with the wall and its names. Then, as you pass the angle and begin to climb, you feel yourself emerging again into the world of noise and light after a meditative experience.
But even the original design of this Memorial was bitterly contested and, as with other such artworks, demeaning interpretations were projected into it. When the Memorial was first constructed, one veteran called it "the most degrading memorial to our experience that was possible… a degrading ditch". The black surface was called "the universal symbol of shame, sorrow and degradation in all races, all societies worldwide" until a black general put a stop to this interpretation. The wall was also reviled as a symbol for peaceniks, "A wailing wall for liberals"; "a wailing wall for anti-draft demonstrators", "A tribute to Jane Fonda", "an open urinal" and "a perverse prank". The fact that the Memorial was in the ground was interpreted as being an admission that the United Stats had committed crimes in Vietnam. None of these early interpretations seem have any effect on visitors today.


A comparison of the funding of the Chicago "Picasso", the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the United Center's "Jordan" reveals the contrasting agendas of sponsors of art in public spaces and indicates why such art can have such different kinds of significance. The Chicago "Picasso" was funded by the Field Foundation of Illinois, the Woods Charitable Fund, Inc. and the Chauncy and Marion Deering McCormick Foundation, all community and cultural support organizations. It was commissioned in 1963 by the architects of the Richard Daley Center. One of the architectural firms collaborating on the Civic Center was Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. William Hartmann, the art collector and friend of Picasso, was a senior partner in that firm. He later became a member of the board of the Art Institute. It cost $351,959.17 to construct. Picasso refused an offer of $100,000 for the commission.

By contrast, the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the work of Maya Ying Lin, at the time, a 21 year old Architecture student at Yale University. She won a competition against 2,573 contestants. The criteria for the competition was that the work:

be reflective and contemplative in character
be harmonious with its site and surroundings
provide for the inscriptions of the names of the nearly 58,000 who gave their lives or remain missing
make no political statement about the war
occupy up to two acres

The winning design, which certainly satisfied these criteria, was the choice of eight experts - seven internationally known architects and one writer/design critic. After the jury anonymously judged the proposals, it unanimously recommended Lin's design to the eight directors of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The proposal then went through a federal approval process. Following lengthy and acrimonious debate, it was agreed to add the realistic statues of the three soldiers and a flag. Although the Memorial is maintained by the National Park District, the memorial was financed entirely by private funds. Cpl. Jan Scruggs, the veteran of the Vietnam war who originated the idea, was a passionate promoter of the Memorial. Over a period of three years, he, along with other supporters, raised over $8 million from over 275,000 investors. The cost of its actual construction was about $850,000.

On the other hand, the statue of Michael Jordan leaping in the air to make a basket at the United Center - actually labeled as "The Spirit: Michael Jordan" to give it an extra, uplifting significance - was funded by the Chicago Bull's Organization. It is there because Bull's Chairman, Jerry Reinsdorf, decided he wanted to honor and publicize this famous sports figure. He directed team Vice President, Steve Schanwald, to select the artist. Schanwald selected the husband-wife team of Omri and Julie Rotblatt-Amrany who have studios in Highland Park. Although they had previously done sculptures of George Halas, Gordie Howe, Minnie Minoso, Jackie Chan, Harry Caray and other popular culture figures, these artists have no status in the upper reaches of the art world. Thus, the "Jordan" is named after its subject, not its artist, as is the "Picasso".


We can complain that decisions about artworks in public places have not involved the public nor shown any consideration for the public's reaction to such works, but such complaints are misconceived. It is apparent that there really is no such single, unitary entity that can credibly be called the "public" and which might make or contribute to such decisions. There are, rather, competing public interest constituencies, different government agencies and corporate boards, each with their own sponsors, agendas and financial support, each with different criteria and procedures for making decisions. Everyone involved has a vested interest in the final product and such interests can conflict. There may be disagreements about the political content of an artwork. What should its subject matter and style be? Should popularity be a factor? If so, how? Since the public is not expected to bring any knowledge of art to the perception of these artworks, could public taste actually be a sufficient criterion for making such decisions? Should an artwork be rejected simply because some people don't like it? Should they vote on it? For the record, images based on popular taste are not noted for their quality. On the other hand, we can ask theoretically whether it is the artist or those who commission the work who should decide the character of the work. How should the artist be chosen? How big should it be? Where should it be? What materials are appropriate? How much should be spent on it? And so forth. The original issue - the democratic assumption that the public can or should make such decisions - is thus naïve and simplistic. Given these circumstances, we are lucky to find so many artworks in public spaces that are enjoyable and meaningful to us. Whatever we think about them, whatever their source, we should be grateful that they are there.

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© 2008 Leopold Segedin. All rights reserved.