Public Art – because you’re worth it!

If 2012 offered an unprecedented opportunity to showcase the arts in the UK as a jewel in the crown of the London 2012 Olympic Games, it also offered the most prominent platform from which to make the argument for continued investment in the arts. The post-2012 visual arts landscape relies upon our capacity to articulate the value of what we do, but what forms of evidence do we produce, and whose criteria are we using? Does your work demonstrate economic benefit, social impact or cultural value? Does it support artform and artist development? Does it engender well-being or produce and distribute cultural capital? How are you using your data, documentation and feedback? Should we return to art school studio assessments or embrace complex matrices which give equal weight to stakeholder expectations and GDP spend? Phew!

Last week AN published a blog post by art consultant Shaun Glanville, which rehearsed the now familiar arguments for a return to the assessment of art for art’s sake. “If the primary motivation [for making art] is not artistic or aesthetic”, Glanville argued, “then the question of measuring the value of the art becomes peripheral and the activity may as well be judged alongside any other type of social intervention. Any social good resulting from a work of art is incidental/accidental/fortuitous and not necessarily proportionate. It is illogical and unfair therefore to judge how ‘good’, ‘valuable’ or ‘investment worthy’ a work of art is by measuring, or attempting to measure, its social benefits.”

Glanville issues an urgent call to action to come up with a new set of critical questions by which we might judge the success of an artwork: His questions include:

  • Is it exploratory?

  • Is it well-constructed?

  • Does it demonstrate an understanding of the form and history of the particular discipline?
  • Is it helpful in furthering that art-form?

  • Does it explore new or interesting methods of creation or construction?

  • Does the artist show skill and integrity in the creation of the work?

  • If it ‘fails’ (whatever we mean by that), does it fail because it is attempting to do some these things? 

  • Might it usefully provoke other work?

Glanville’s questions act as a retort to the predominance of data analysis as a means of judging success. Though his questions do represent the fundamental criteria by which we might judge any artwork’s significance, they offer a rather studio-based, narrow view of how an artwork might be judged. His text betrays a mistrust of other criteria of judgment, particularly the assessment of art’s social, economic or cultural impact, and in turn, the consideration of context as integral to a work’s resonance.

But Glanville, and those who dismiss the application of social science methods to assess artistic worth, miss an important point, perhaps best demonstrated through the example of public art. There are other questions I would want to ask of any work which evolves or finds its place outside a gallery or museum, such as:

  • Does it provoke new and surprising encounters?
  • Does it shake up our perceptions of the world around us, or our backyard?
  • Does it provoke us to see things as if they were different?
  • Does it stimulate us to tell someone else?
  • Does it enable social interaction, or provoke new connections?
  • Does it contribute to a dynamic and progressive sense of place?

So why is it important to ask such questions of public art? Why is it not enough, as Glanville suggests, to judge artworks in the public realm on their terms alone?

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In the collective imagination, public art is cast either as the controversial, uninvited guest or the mass entertainer. Characterised by monumental scale or mass appeal, the successful public artwork is judged against its ability to galvanise popular opinion and contribute positively to place-making. Invariably if it fails on either count, it is judged against its price tag. Even well-informed art critics mistrust the genre. British journalist Jonathan Jones has decried public art as “a production line for boring art, and mavericks have no place in its dreary ethic.”[i]

And yet this myopic view of art in the public realm masks its recent transformation beyond the gigantism of landmark sculpture, the mass appeal of participatory performance or the embedded nature of urban design. Over the past two decades we’ve seen the diversification of approaches to commissioning art in the public realm. Artists have always worked beyond the boundaries of building-based programmes, of course, but what has changed is that such approaches are now actively sought out by commissioners and curators. Most notable changes include the commissioning of artists from the contemporary gallery sector employing media, materials and processes previously thought unsuitable for the public realm, the incorporation of dynamic curatorial methods and the exchange of single-sited, permanent outcomes in favour of dispersed interventions or cumulative, curated programmes which evolve over space and time.

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Public art should now be understood as a variety of forms and approaches that engage with the sites and situations of the public realm. These range from embedded scenarios where artists operate from within planning departments; process-based projects, where the artworks constitute collective, participatory processes; fleeting sculptural or performative interventions and long-term durational model institutions.

If you were to apply Glanville’s questions to these projects, you would miss out on the remarkable stories of transformation, displacement, intervention and process. The stories of impact on the re-enactors of the Battle of Orgreave, or on the North Devon town of Ilfracombe in the case of the visiting nomadic island, Nowhereisland, last summer, crucially must form part of the assessment of the work. (By this, I’m not suggesting that ‘positive, life-enhancing’ impact might be the only criteria by which we judge these works to have been successful, after all, artists Jeremy Deller and Alex Hartley would disassociate themselves from any suggestion that their works operate as catharsis or to enhance well-being through overtly positive means.) But rather, a more complex understanding of these works can be achieved through listening to a more complex set of stories. To integrate the voices of participants and producers, the texture of site and situation and the wider impact on remote digital audiences requires an entirely different set of assessment tools than those used by a sole curator or critic.

In 2011, Professor Lynn Froggett and her team at UCLAN published their research findings from a two-year-long study into the impact of socially engaged arts practice and the ways in which its value can be evaluated and articulated. The research is particularly useful in considering how research might be undertaken over time in a particular place, and in doing so, gives us an example of how we might evidence how certain artworks maintain critical rigour whilst also being socially progressive.

Think of Froggett’s explanation in regard to Glanville’s words at the start: “Artistic outcome and aesthetic (whether conceived as aesthetic of process or of product) is not subordinate to other social agendas. The artwork remains as an essential third object or point of dialogue between the arts organisation and members of the public who are not arts professionals… To ‘work’ as this third point of attention which activates new interpretations, it must retain aesthetic integrity – this enables it to endure as a third ‘object’ that opens up ways of seeing things differently. Where it ‘collapses’ as a third there may still be pleasurable experiential immediacy but it is unlikely to generate new relational forms or critical dialogue.”[ii]

It is this aesthetic integrity to which new forms of public art aspire and which can distinguish critically successful projects from other cultural activities which offer immediate gratification, but which do not generate new forms of critical dialogue or transformation. It is here that we find our argument for the value of contemporary art in the public realm beyond mass spectacle. It is here that we find the argument for investment in durational arts projects, which evolve over time and place to allow for those critical dialogues to emerge.

Last week also saw the first round of applications for the new Cultural Value Project – a two-year AHRC funded programme dedicated to testing out new methods for assessing the value of the arts, to “help shape a more persuasive and innovative approach to the value to individuals and society generated by the arts and culture.” Perhaps with the help of such projects, we might begin to see a new set of questions emerge and the methods for answering them.

Claire Doherty
Director
Situations
@ccdbristol


[i] Jonathan Jones, ‘The fate of Wallinger’s horse shows why public art cannot be good art’, The Guardian, 5 July 2011. Access at <http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2011/jul/05/public-art-cannot-be-good-art&gt;

[ii] Professor Lynn Froggett et al, ‘New Model Arts Institutions and Public Engagement’, Research Study download headline findings here.

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