Basharat Bashir

Public Art

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Public art is a form of art involving public participation either direct or indirect in a public space. It can be any form of art in any media created for general public that focuses on public or universal concept rather than commercial or personal perception. It’s art for the people and with the people in any indoor or outdoor public space visually and physically accessible to general public. Public art is a specific art genre different from other forms of art that we see around in galleries and museums as well as any form of independent art created in public space.

Public art differs from other art forms executed in public space including graffiti and street art in a way that these art forms in most of the cases lack official or tangible public sanction. Graffiti and street art in most of the cases represent a personal concept of an artist or sometimes authority commissioning the art project other than general public and does not consider public opinion. Although many street artists worked to involve general public in their art process and have to some extent managed to change the perspective towards street art but most of the times it falls outside the genre of public art.

Public art is executed through public process including public funding and community involvement. It is accessible to public, installed in public space and represents a universal concept approved by public. In any case if a public art piece is installed in any private property, general public still have rights to access it. Public art works can be permanent or temporary depending upon the nature of work and site specificity.  Public art is generally site specific and represents unique features and significance of place and community within which it’s executed and installed. Main aim of public art is to extend opportunities for community engagements and create a space for general public to interact with the art. Rather than a specific opinion  public art allows public to have their collective conclusions about the concept of the art work.

Public art is often created and provided within formal “art in public places” programs that can include community arts education and art performance. Mostly funded by general public but such programs may also be financed by government entities, characterized by community involvement and collaboration. Some public art is planned and designed for stability and permanence. Its placement in, or exposure to, the physical public realm requires both safe and durable materials. Public artworks require to be designed to withstand natural conditions like sun, wind, and rain as well as human activity. In the United States, unlike gallery, studio, or museum artworks, which can be transferred or sold, public art is legally protected by the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA) which requires an official de-accession process for sale or removal.

There are different forms of Public art involving different materials and processes for example Sculptures, statues and structures fall in the category of ‘Sand Alone’ public art works. In the same way ‘Integrated’ public art is generally executed on facades, pavements or landscapes in the form of bas reliefs, hill figure, mosaics and digital lighting. Applied (to a surface) public art involves murals and building-mounted sculptures in the same way there is public art as installation and ephemeral or non permanent public art.

History and examples of early public art can be seen in ancient Greece were religious and social art (predominantly sculpture), was viewed and appreciated by the community at large. Later, Roman authorities erected mass-produced statues of the Roman Emperor in all corners of the empire, in order to demonstrate the majesty of Rome. This concept of communal aesthetics or propaganda was vigorously implemented by modern monarchs to influence public by exaggerating their strength and political and social stature. Many rulers from different parts of the world used public art to propagate their personal ideology including President Roosevelt who used public art projects for propaganda during Great Depression. The project was intended to develop national pride in American culture while avoiding addressing the faltering economy.

The approach to public art radically changed during the 1970s, following the civil rights movement’s claims on public space, the alliance between urban regeneration programs and artistic efforts at the end of the 1960s, and revised ideas of sculpture. Public art acquired a status beyond mere decoration and visualization of official national histories in public space. Public art became much more about the public. This perspective was reinforced in the 1970s by urban cultural policies, for example the New York-based Public Art Fund and urban or regional Percent for Art programs in the United States and Europe. Moreover, public art discourse shifted from a national to a local level, consistent with the site-specific trend and criticism of institutional exhibition spaces emerging in contemporary art practices.

Public art has been divided in various categories according to the nature of work and its implementation including: Environmental public art, interactive public art, new genre public art, curated public art and memorial public art.

Environmental public art

Environmental art which is defined as a range of artistic practices encompassing both historical approaches to nature in art and more recent ecological and politically motivated types of works. It  has evolved away from formal concerns, for example monumental earthworks using earth as a sculptural material, towards a deeper relationship to systems, processes and phenomena in relationship to social concerns. The focus of environmental public art is to increase ecological awareness through a green urban design process involving active public participation.

Interactive public art

As the term suggests interactive public art involves direct interaction between public and art work. This genre of public art is designed to encourage direct hands-on interaction. Examples include public art that contain interactive musical, light, video, or water components. For example, the architectural centerpiece in front of the Ontario Science Centre is a fountain and musical instrument (hydraulophone) by Steve Mann where people can produce sounds by blocking water jets to force water through sound-producing mechanisms. An early and unusual interactive public artwork was Jim Pallas’ 1980 Century of Light in Detroit, Michigan of a large outdoor mandala of lights that reacted in complex ways to sounds and movements detected by radar.

New genre public art

In the 1990s, some artists called for artistic social intervention in public space. These efforts employed the term “new genre public art” in addition to the terms “contextual art”, “relational art”, “participatory art”, “dialog art”, “community-based art”, and “activist art.” “New genre public art” is defined by Suzanne Lacy as “socially engaged, interactive art for diverse audiences with connections to identity politics and social activism

Curated public art

Curated public art refers to public art produced by a community or public who “commissions” a work in collaboration with a curator-mediator. An example is the doual’art project in Douala (Cameroon, 1991) that is based on a commissioning system that brings together the community, the artist and the commissioning institution for the realization of the project.

Memorial public art

Public art is sometimes used to represent memorials for individuals, groups of people or events having significance within the community.  For example, Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, Tim Tate’s AIDS Monument in New Orleans, Kenzō Tange’s Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan and “Pillar of Shame” by Danish artist Jens Galschiot first erected in Victoria Park in 1997 to mark the eighth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

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