Public Art – Oxymoron or What?

Public Art: Oxymoron Or What?
For everything 2.3

Public Art – Oxymoron or What?

Adam Phillips, writing of psychoanalysis, draws a distinction between two Freuds: the Enlightenment Freud and the post-Fredian Freud. For the Enlightenment Freud, the analyst is a sort of expert on life: there to offer convincing stories to the patient, that will help her to ‘cure’ her symptoms. The analyst has access to knowledge that the patient needs but lacks. The Enlightenment Freud is a realist in an uncomplicated way.

The post-Freudian Freud, on the other hand, has relinquished this epistomological certainty. For the post-Freudian Freud, the analyst cannot offer a cure because there is no cure. The analyst is a listener, whose listening helps the patient come to terms with the fact that there are no answers to her questions: to bear the knowledge that knowing is impossible and to desire when desire can never be fulfilled. The post-Freudian Freud is a transendental realist, where the subject’s knowledge is always contingent but the reality of its object is not in doubt.

“The Enlightenment Freud and his patient are accumulating cultural capital, insuring themselves against the future with insight. The post-Freudian Freud and his patient are making a provisional investment, gambling on uncertainty. Heir to both projects, the contemporary analist, like her patient, can never know what it is possible to say, nor the consequences of that saying. What we are asking for can be a surpirse.”

The risk for the psychoanalyst, of whatever kind, is to start believing her own theories. It was a fundamental insight of Freud to show how devious rationality could be and the tyranny that could lie behind certainty and authority: how fear and conviction can keep the subject living in the past, immune from the contingencies of the future. It is not admitted often enough that analysts are frightened of their patients. Being an expert can be a defence. So it is ironic when analysts behave as if they don’t have their doubts. Claims to expertese, a foreclosed claim to rationality, authority and conviction, in psychoanalysis, as elsewhere, can be dangerous.

The trouble for the public artist is, I think, akin to the trouble for the analyst. It is a question of how not to be an expert, or a certain kind of expert: how not to claim some kind of rationality, authority and conviction over the realm of the public. Perhaps it is a question of trying to precipitate a cultural liason in a divided culture.


Public Art is, by definition, something that resides in public; it is also, by definition, something made by artists. For ‘public art’ to sound feasible, one needs confidence in the ability of the meanings of artists to connect with the meanings of the public. This might make sense if one imagines a universal public guided by rationality, in search of self-knowledge and betterment, open to the aesthetic expertese art could bring to bear on the public realm. Such a hope seems somewhat unrealistic: not many persons believe in this Enlightenment project any more, if they ever did.

What such a view relies upon is a differentiated cultural sphere, where art is a high pleasure. This view is still relatively common. In the public sphere, autonomous art is defended according to its supposed redemptive power. Any public for such an art is going to have to be receptive and passive. The artist, in this scenario, is an expert provider of aesthetic objects or meanings: an expert at culture. The more, or less, grateful public can consume, or refuse to consume, the cultural product, but what is not available is the oppotunity to make demands of their own. 

Recently Middlesborough supporters made the demand of a Claus Oldenberg bottle, a permanant piece of public art in the town, that its top be changed from blue to red, the team’s colour. The council, wanting to currie favour with its public, politely inquired of the artist if this would be possible. The artist declined, pointing out the significance of blue in relation to seafaring, which is apparantly what the art was about. The fans compromised by swathing the bottle in the team’s red scarfs.

The Middlesborough fans were making demands, polite and reasonable demands, that the artist could not meet. Oldenberg’s explanation of the blue, whether or not he was being, or thought he was being, ironic, cut no ice with the Boro fans: his explanation remained inaccessible. And herein is the quandry for any would-be public art: the public space is not merely a physical place; it is a social, cultural and ideological construction to boot. Any art formed by the determinates of the studio, which is also a social and ideological force rather than a physical place, is going to be inaccessible to the uncultured public, that is, to the majority who will see it in a public location. What I’m getting at is that public art, by virtue of its being in public, does not therefore get away from the social relations embodied by the studio as a private and specialized place of production and the gallery as a place of passive consumption.

The crux of the problem is that the public are philistines. Following Beech and Roberts, I would identify the philistine as a characteristic set of modes of attention. Although these meanings are real, held by at least some real persons some of the time, and have real effects, the idea of the philistine is constructed ideologically. The philistine is those modes of attention excluded from proper attention to high culture. Art has constantly defined and redefined itself in contrast, in opposition, to that which is inappropriate to art: in particular, this tautology distances art from the ordinary, everday public sphere. Without doing something about the historical opposition, which is the result of social division and perpetuates a divided culture, ‘public art’ is goint to remain an oxymoron.

Art seems ill equiped to deal with the philistine demands of Boro fans, of philistine demands per se. And the philistine is bound to make demands because she refuses to recognise the authority of art and the legitimacy of its autonomy. The demand is always a demand that art should be other than it is. This is, of course, an unreasonable demand. But its very unreason carries the truth of the philistine’s lack of cultural capital. The unreasonable financial demands of organized labour carry the truth of exploitation (a truth ideologically concealled by the capitalist’s idea of the equality of the wage contract). The cultural deprivation of the philistine is a real absence, a sign of social division and cultural empoverishment; it is not that the philistine response is merely differently cultured. It is a lack. But the claim of the artist to know what is best for a philistine situation, seems a dangerous expertese. The philistine response is a violent assertion from an alienated subject: the violence marks its proximity to the truth of social division. On the other hand, the artist who considers herself an expert on public meaning has forgotten the fact that her cultural capital equally comes from social division: this truth being distanced by assured rationality and cultural authority.

Public art that does not meet the demands of philistine modes of attention, at least half-way, is going to remain in its own world, on its own terms; an imposer of meanings.

Public art can always choose to accept, to reproduce or to celebrate the existing meanings and modes of attention of its public, of the philistine. Such an approach is either the acceptance and therefore naturalization of social division or an attempt to pretend that cultural differences are not, after all, written by social division. The argument that philistine modes of attention are an integral but repressed part of the construction of art and therefore should be recuperated as part of the truth of art, does not entail that they are carriers of truth per se, and should be celebrated. That equally leads to a denial of the politics of cultural capital and social division. Put into practice, one tends to end up with a sentimental and sanitized view of class, a la Steven Willats. Neither the show of the resistence of individual meanings and complexities, nor that of victimhood, come close to the real violence of cultural exclusion and social division. The philistine mode of attention is often aggressive, mocking, perverse, bored, stupid and so forth: a list not easily recuped by the artist eeking out a sympathetic display of personal, meaningful objects or the like. In fact, Steven Willats is an expert in coercion and bureaucracy, amongst other things.

Art being made by the public is no guarantee of being accessible to the public. The usual result of such endeavours is a sentimental paraody of both the ideas of publicness and art: the visual culture equivalent of the radio phone-in. Of course, phone-ins can be interesting but the fact that everyone gets their say does not necessarilly make what is said interesting. In Derby, as part of the five year City Challange regeneration project (known as PRIDE), Derby Community Arts have orchestrated ‘A Sideways Glance’, wherein four groups of local persons have made a billboard each. “Participants have used objects from their own lives to examine their individual and collective cultural experiences”, as it says in the brouchure.

Another approach to reconciling the categories of ‘public’ and ‘art’, is to adopt a conventional public form, such as the bronze statue, and fill it with whatever content. This approach has been favoured by many dictatorships as a way of getting the message across. This is very public but has a painful conception of art.

Mostly, though, public art is art made by artists for public spaces. Thus it has a lot to do with art but intrinsicly excludes philistine modes of attention and therefore has a very limited conception of the public. The problem for the artist is that her identity as an artist, her expertese, goes to re-inforce her distance from the public, hovwever benevolent or accomodating her intentions. Perhaps it is a questiin of what she considers herself to be expert in. It is when she is an expert in high-cultural forms of attention, that her confidence viciously excludes other modes of attention.

This problem can be seen clearly in other public art in Derby, provided by a tiny bit of the City Challenge project. Eshewing the formal public art solution, the money has been used to employ contemporary artists.

Lyn Silverman has been employed, in fact, by Serco (a mega-rich train servicing company formally part of B.R.), who thought that they were going to get something like documentary photographs. Instead, she has produced a series of dramatically lit, enigmatic abstractions of moments of Serco’s technical work. Each enigmatic photograph is presented with a technical drawing, or more straightforward photograph of place, process or event, from which it is an abstraction. This is a concewssion to other forms of attention she has not made before. Still, her expertese as a cultural producer of fine images, and the demands made of a viewer of her work, seem to remain unaffected by this concession. In a way, her distinction as a cultural producer seems re-inforced by this alien situation: being alien makes her otherness form the ordinary more apparant. She is not affected by this alien culture, she is just malingering within it.

Stefan Gec, in contrast and publicly funded, has made something site specific in a cultural and historical sense. The Derby PRIDE park area contains a lot of old railway buildings, including the oldest roundhouse in the world, now a listed building. Gec invited old railway workers to meet him in the roundhouse, so as to learn the local history. The result, apart from getting the turntable to work for the first time in years (which seemed to be the thing most appreciated by the old workers) and making a film of one rotation by attaching a camera to its underside, was a public work in a pre-ordained site.

For his public art, Gec reproduced a local motif: the top of pillars that held up a raised walkwayover the mainline, used by workers getting from the town to the roundhouse. The slightly ornate pillars were obviously out of place, adopted from some other, unknown, place. He cast the top five foot of a pillar six times, from old railway track he found lying about in the roundhouse. Three pairs were then planted between the cylce path nad the river that form the edge of the other side of PRIDE park (the pre-ordained site). Originally intended to be in the river (too expensive) where they would be covered and revealled as the water level rose and fell, they will now be covered by rising vegetation during the summer, whilst the middle pair, at the bottom of the river bank, remain vulnerable to being covered when the river is full.

This work fits perfectly with Brian McAvera’s call for public art “that is site sensitive in that it reacts to elements of the locale, such as history or aspects of ecological concern, the intent is positive as with much of Andy Goldsworthy’s work.” (it just had to be bloody Andy Goldsworthy).McAvera wants the work to be sympathetic to the audiance: it should even “plug into the co-operation of the local community or communities (the users of the locale) and be sensitive to their needs.” (whatever that might mean). The problem is such local communities soundrarified and abstract in his scheme. He is contemptuous of real persons showing typical working class taste: “there is work, often designated hopefully as sculpture, which is simply street furniture: more or less permanent craftwork such as artistic seats or fountains, which are much beloved by local councils.”: The reason local councils love them is because the persons who elect local councillors love them. McAvera can only7 get round the problem that local communities are not in the least likely to be sensitive to, or interested in, his historically sensitive model of work made for them, is, predictably, by bringing in education: “logically, unless education programmes are devised to help the public understand what sartists are doing, then we are not going to get an educated public in this area. It is obvious that his ‘universal’ “we” excludes the uneducated working class: if only the working class could be more like the middle class.

I don’t know if any public artists actually agree with M cAvera, but some such argument is needed to glue the public to the art. McAvera uses questions of whom is public art for, and allhis talk of local communities, to promote the idea of the artist as a particular kind of expert: not only an expert in art but also an expert on bing sensitive to locality. The public doesn’t get a look in as active agents, with desires, pleasures and experiences which might well conflict with the sensitive benevelence of the artist. It is indicative that McAvera brackets history with ecology, as though human actions can be approached with the same detachment as natural objects.

And now for something completely different. Cornford and Cross have used their money from Derby PRIDE to organize a beauty contest for the inhabitants of the area. This was purely in terms of facial beauty. To insure impartiallity, the competitors were judged by a computer. Cornford and Cross got a computer expert to bastardize the progreamme that does police mugshots. The ;bastardized programme judged such things as proportion adn symmatry, givbing each contestant a score out of a thousand, to two decimal places. Established icons of beauty,l such as Naomi Campbell, were fed into the system as examples of perfect beauty. The top ten contestants ‘won’ their score in cash – their pictures being displayed with names and scores in the Montage gallery. The pictures on display were large (about five foot tall) and very standard gray, with flat lighting, presumably to make life easy for the computer.


So how might public art be possible? I think the only way to think of any public art is to turn the question around and look at the artist and not the philistine – or rather the artist in relation to the philistine. In fact, the idea of the philistine is relational to art in the first place. Not a constant term, it marks what has been excluded from proper taste, appropriate forms of attention to art. The only way to make public art, it would seem, is to admit that it is impossible: that is, that it is bound to fail to quench the philistine demand that it should be something other than it is. The artist must be able, in some way, to stop patrolling her own philistinism: to allow other demands to be made on her work. To do this is to enter an uncertain future, where the rationality, authority and conviction of her standing as an expert, as an artist, no longer holds sway.

The premise of the position is that the cultural division has deprived the public of making anything other than philistine demands. Following Beech and Roberts, I think it is important to conceive of philistine modes of attention as a spectre conjoured up by high cultural discourse, but one that, in the face of cultural division, makes real subjects.

Adam Phillips, Terrors and Experts,Faber and Faber, London, 1995, p.17.
See, in particular, Dave Beech and John Roberts, Tolerating Impurities: An Ontology, Genealogy and Defence of Philistinism, in New Left Review, No.227, January/February 1998.
Brian McAvera, Site Sensitivities, in Art Monthly, No.215, April 1998, p.36.