Thursday, May 21, 2009

Is All Good Art Private Before It Is Public?

Checking in across the Pond we find a similar debate is being held there with regards to whether or not the public is the best judge of what it likes. OK, so that's a bit of a loaded spin; the real debate is whether or not the public is the best judge of art. (You may recall the rounds we went recently regarding the ArtPrize.) OK, so I'm being a bit misleading once more, in the interest of finding transition that quite obviously just isn't there, so I'll abandon the effort.

The debate is actually whether the public is the best judge of public art.

Jonathan Jones participated in two public debates/events of late and the second one kind of picked up where we had left off:

It's called the Big Art Debate, is staged by the Art Fund and connected with the current Channel 4 series, the Big Art Project. Jon Snow chairs. It asks: Can the public be trusted to choose public art? Grayson Perry and I will argue that no, they bloody well can't. Munira Mirza and Andrew Shoben will argue that they can.

[...]The public artist's lot in modern Britain is similar to that of the portrait painter. In this century, we've fallen in love with public art; every city wants its Angel of the North. [...]It's as if we have, as a nation, turned into the board of some big company commissioning a portrait of the managing director. Or, rather, a bronze statue of John Betjeman, or maybe a gigantic homage to a sprinter like Manchester's B of the Bang (bang and it's gone). Most of the public art we're putting up is worthless.

The best interventions in public space by artists are often confrontational and controversial, from Richard Serra's Tilted Arc to Rachel Whiteread's House. All good art is private before it is public. The secret to finding great art for public spaces[...] is to find talented artists who happen to be interested in working in that arena. Then let them indulge themselves.

I think you can parse the central premise here a bit to where you don't have to limit it to a choice between artists making work on demand that follows common tastes (à la Komar and Melamid's "Most Wanted" paintings, which I know were not conceived of as "Public art," per se, but which remain the best example of how awful art-by-committee can be) and artists dropping work into the public sphere that doesn't take into account how the public actually uses that space (à la Serra's "Titled Arc"). (I feel the public does have some right to have some say about that.)

I think you can imagine an entire spectrum of options that, both, permit artists to indulge themselves and give the public some input into what art they interact with while commuting or picnicking or trudge off to the supermarket. The 4th Plinth project in London is one such example that manages both (although, Jones isn't so fond of that project [and admittedly makes a good argument for how this particular location for public art is flawed], but that still doesn't mean the process whereby artists submit proposals and the public votes isn't the right way to go here).

The advantage to the proposals-and-vote model are several. First, you don't see artist indulging themselves too much (i.e., in this case, wasting money) finishing works that will not be selected for the public location or removed in protest. Second, the public buy-in works to give the piece good word of mouth publicity. Third, you get two good bursts of public interest (during the voting and then visiting the piece they selected to see how it turned out).

There must be other models as well...what are the other possibilities that, again, permit what I think are the two important goals in public art choices: artists able to realize a vision independent of others' input and the public actually happy to see the work installed? Or is all good art private before it is public?

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17 Comments:

Anonymous Cedric C said...

I think that's a good model, a jury deciding a selection of 20 projects (out of 400+) and the public voting out of 20.

But the jury should count more than 5 persons (at least 10, like a jury in Cannes).


Cedric C


(the public voting directly through a 400+ catalog would not necessarely choose bad art but they would choose something rather accessible. I'm thinking of the results of public votes at the World Film Festival in Montreal where people are free to vote among over 300 films. The winner is always a good film, but not "avant" in any ways.)

5/21/2009 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Giovanni said...

I am not a believer in public opinion being a good gauge for art. There's a reason why Thomas Kinkade is this country's most successful artist.

5/21/2009 11:32:00 AM  
Blogger Sean Capone said...

I do think that the type of art placed in the public sphere has to have some type of considerations of both the space and of public taste. This is not pandering, IMO. One enters a museum, gallery or similar 'cultural' space within a certain frame of mind to reflect, navigate, be stimulated, entertained, possibly provoked. Or bored.
To drop a project in a public urban space (already diminutive and problematic) that forces the same type of engagement is a little hubristic.
This means however, that many successful public art projects in the US are little more than amusing playgrounds (in Chicago, the Picasso sculpture, the Crown Fountain; Koons' Flower Puppy etc). Is this a bad thing, to give folks a break in today's cities where there's not so much as a place to sit down without having to buy something?
I have to (again, sorry) bring up the failure of Eliasson's Waterfalls that were on display here last year. They contributed zippo to the visual landscape and lacked both conceptual heft and entertainment value. Why was this? IMO because the public couldn't interact with them, and New Yorkers are probably pretty tired of looking at nothing but scaffolding as they go about their daily business. Tilted Arc, in reverse, but just as annoying. Some public say-so here could have prompted a re-think on what was little more than a tourist-marketing crass endeavor; again, the hubris (of an admittedly world-class artist) on display.

5/21/2009 12:09:00 PM  
Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

I find the inverse equally compelling - Look at the Bauhaus - that entire school was trying to make art, furniture and architecture for workers in some sort of Socialist vision. It was Capitalist Industrialists that bought into the design aesthetic most thoroughly (steel and glass towers and cubicles being the most common manifestation) - and anyone who works for a corporation in an office interacts with the Bauhaus ideas on design on a daily basis which was not their intended audience.

5/21/2009 01:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Join the debate at The Guardian, JJ promises to be more involved with questions now, threads go on for far longer than here, too long many times. But we are finally narrowing down to the real question, what is art? This has not been honestly asked and debated in decades, always framed within the academic lingo and self enclosed paramaters, not what the rest of humanity wants and thinks art is. Or should be. Or has always been. And what it must return to, now that it is needed, now that it can no longer remain a plaything for the wealthy and selfabsorbed. Its time to get to work, it's about us, not I. Always has been, always will be.

5/21/2009 07:37:00 PM  
Blogger mm said...

Innovative art is always ahead of public taste. What makes it 'good' as art doesn't necessarily make it the best fit for mass consumption unless that is its intent and function (but that would date it- not a bad thing but something to consider). Masterpieces aren't usually recognized till years after they're first shown, when a body of thought has matured enough to see them through what Mallarmé described as a commensurate gaze.

5/21/2009 08:43:00 PM  
Blogger John Andrew Cipriano, Joe Elliot, Julian Lorber said...

I'm not sure what most people think. The majority of people that I've spoken with about art that didn't have any knowledge or art history or art making look for some realistic representation or recognizable imagery. "That looks like a bird" Therefore it's logical that asking the public's opinion means finding works that are representation of the the public's "opinion".

I agree that giving the public a say is important, it's the foundation of our whole understanding of democracy. On the other hand, art is already coming from a place that takes into consideration the artist's personal environment which includes the public in some small way. Letting them choose art isn't necessary.
Art professionals spend a great deal of time, energy and love putting themselves into direct connection and conflict with art, just so they can be the ones making those decisions (competently).

Things we let the public make decisions about - President, American Idol, abortion and women's bodies... am I joking?

5/21/2009 09:53:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

Good point Bromo.

When people say 'public art' usually they mean sculpture or painting. But obviously architecture is the most public of arts and other branches of design go almost unnoticed in the public sphere. And public opinion about architecture is forever divided - it's takes about a generation apparently for things like Frank lloyd Wright's Gugg to be widely accepted. Conversely, just as many things look dreadful after twenty years or so.

How much acceptance is acceptable? I think critics like the halfwit Jones imagine there's some golden time when everyone will love what's new and most challenging. But what sense does that make? If the new challenges, clearly it must meet with resistance. Otherwise it's what we call conservative or traditional. There's a powerful argument that long term and expensive art forms like architecture ought to tend to the conservative, largely for this reason. But again, I suspect Jones wants it both ways.

5/21/2009 10:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Kinkade is not the top at auction houses unless I'm mistaken. People buy it because it's accessible.

But do national surveys about art really list Kinkade as their fave artist?


I would have guessed Picasso or Monet.


Mind you, I would love to see a Kinkade exhibit (a full retro).
It's kind of fascinating.

Cedric Caspesyan

5/21/2009 11:29:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I don't think it would have killed richard serra to put a door in his tilted arc so that people who had to walk around it daily could have been granted the kindness of not having to confront the space in front of their office - an office that could probably use an intervention if it's own.

But professionalism is it's own esthetic - to make work that is hostile to the psossitive tea spiritedness of the workplace is to be at odds with the cheerfull can do attitude that brought Puritans and Puritanism to the head of the class.

Now if you want to say that work that has no obvious utility or even real entertainment value should concern the average viewer, then I suggest you sit and watch the proceedings of the congress on CSpan and see if the information value is really all that - i submit to you that most congressional speeches are formal rather than substantive.

Public art is often no more than a signifier for art, a brand name attached to an eyesore. Think of Oldenbergs typewriter eraser - hideous, corny and about as relevant as a Playstation 2 plugged into a dot matrix printer printing cyber porn. I mean really, when was the last time you had to take dictation using short hand in a production environment? What is the keyboard shortcut for I can't remember the last time I felt free?

I like some public art - the kind that lifts the heavy chains of bondage and pushes back.


So rare, that kind of public art, sanctioned by only one, given to the many; E Unum, ye Pluribus.

5/22/2009 04:16:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

I don't think it would have killed richard serra to put a door in his tilted arc so that people who had to walk around it daily...

Aw, nine oclock and there's coffee all over my keyboard ;-)

5/22/2009 09:10:00 AM  
Blogger Giovanni said...

Cedric C, you may want to read this great article about Kinkade from the New Yorker: http://www.susanorlean.com/articles/art_for_everybody.html

I hate his work, but it's fascinating to see how there is a HUGE audience for it, and all completely outside of the art world.

I'd be curious to see "Making Sense of Thomas Kinkade" at Middlebury Museum http://bit.ly/PI0m0

5/22/2009 12:28:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Giovanni said, "... it's fascinating to see how there is a HUGE audience for it, and all completely outside of the art world."

Having once worked in a limited-edition prints gallery for five years, I can tell you that the general public's perception of Kinkade as a good artist is very much bound up with their hope that his prints will prove good investments. (The fact that most of his prints never go up in value - because they are released in editions of 1000 or 5000 or 20,000 or 50,000 - doesn't disillusion anyone.)

5/22/2009 01:19:00 PM  
Blogger mm said...

Tom, do you think the phenomenon driving Kinkade and Jack Vettriano as commodities of sentiment the same as the one behind Beanie Babies and baseball cards? Or commemorative plates?

5/22/2009 06:30:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

mm: I would guess so. I have no doubt that many of the people who like Kinkade now won't give him a second thought when his prints and collectibles lose most (if not all) of their value - which will happen when popular tastes change.

"Commodities of sentiment." You've hit the nail on the head.

5/22/2009 07:37:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

A factor that comes into play here, is that the changing demographic and economy has altered the ways the culture utilizes art.

There has been a dramatic increase in size of the market for art and this is having an affect on how art is used in the culture.

Artists like Kinkade and Vettriano now have access to a larger market which helps create a degree of liquidity and therefor fosters the idea that their artworks are 'collectible' In fact this is true, in much the same way as other collectibles.

What's interesting is that while we may turn up our noses at the likes of Kincade (Vettriano, Peter Max etc) a large sector of the "fine art" market offers artworks which have about the same or even less investment value.

Even though they address different segments of the audience, both of the above groups have a similar utility within the culture, They both offer art that is 'useful' for decoration within our public and private spaces. Decoration becomes its primary function and though I find both Kincade and Vettriano excessively saccharine they know how to paint as well as many MFA graduates. Moreover we find work in the commercial galleries which feigns an intelligent construct but in reality functions ultimately as decoration.

Advanced art, the hydra headed avant guard, has its usefulness in the realm of a visual philosophy; a reflexive exploration of how and why we make art and how it functions within the culture. It may or may not function as decoration but that is not its primary use.

Then there's blue chip art, modern masters, whatever you want to call it. The artworks come from the cultural history and have been sorted out and validated over time.

In terms of public art it's decoration and probably better sorted out by the elite before being put up to a public vote.

FWIW, "decoration" is an observation about how an artwork is primarily used and should not be taken as a pejorative, I'm not suggesting that.

5/23/2009 04:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

These posts are a great read.


As for art chosen by polling crowds, I don't think we need to worry so much there. The Sistine
Chapel has a great number of lessons we can draw from. Although the commission was very much a consolation award to the artist that had lost a prior commission to do sculpture for the popes "tombstone", and although sculpture was considered by the artist to be his "medium", well, as is evident, great art happens.
Great art is inspired not by money but firstly by the artist’s engagement. Lesson Secondo- by not funding the artist for his preffered commission, we will never know the real loss to the art world was. So where we fund has a direct impact on where and whom and so what insights the artist will apply their genius to.For sure great art is personal. Without the artist’s original personal engagement, the art viewer would not in their turn have an opportunity to have their own personal engagement with the art's insight. This secondary revelation can happen in the realm of the public or private, but it is almost always a personal engagement.

So the art commission chosen by polling a crowd.... if the great artist is there, the great art will occur. And really, maybe the source of art funding has always been the driving force throughout art histories significant insights. Has anyone charted the source of funding against arts progression of insights? Possibly the history of art is simply treasure hunting at the indicated X. Wherever the great artist looks, they will find what is of value to the world? (Recall that the great salons were in fact an initiative of the art academies and these new sources of potential funding were a key determinant in artists seeking to create "unique" artworks to stand above the fray as compared to their contemporaries)

Maybe there is a particular insight that our generation needs to learn concerning democracy and crowd polling. Most would doubt this, but with our past as evidence, it is obvious that we usually take a while to recognize and accept "great" art. (Many of our art styles get their names from initially derogatory labels. – can you guess that I am currently rereading The story of art. ? ) Possibly each generation can only absorb one paradigm shift and insight within its life span.

5/25/2009 06:11:00 AM  

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