For Beatrix Marcel –

I love you the whole world.

Public Art

Theory, Practice and Populism

Cher Krause Knight



The role of the spectator is to determine the weight of the work on the esthetic scale. (Duchamp 1957: 819)

I cannot think of a single book on public art that commences with Marcel Duchamp. Maybe this is not surprising. Duchamp, the irreverent artist-provocateur, is best known as a Dadaist. Confounded by the massive violence of World War I, the Dada artists responded to senseless cruelty and destruction with artworks that trafficked in absurdity, mocking conventional art world pretensions. Dadaism was a social movement as much as an artistic one; the aforementioned “esthetic scale” actually encompassed much more than aesthetics. Audiences were asked to interrogate the foundations of society, moving beyond collective and individual comfort zones. Dadaism represented an unwillingness to accept things as they are, resisting complicit endorsement of the status quo. “Spectators” bore a great responsibility – if not to change their behaviors, at least to question the social norms that formed them. Duchamp instinctively apprehended the viewer’s primary role in the art experience. In “The Creative Act” (1957), he scrutinizes the authority of the artist, and affirms the power of the spectator. He describes the “art coefficient” as a gap between an artist’s intention and the artwork’s realization, where viewers actively engage with and interpret the art. Duchamp proposes that an artist cannot fully express his own intent, so the viewer must complete the Creative Act; without someone to react to and interact with the art, the artistic process is forever unfinished, a still-born idea never seizing its absolute potential. No longer a passive act, “viewing” gives way to a multitude of readings, limited only by the number of people in a work’s audience. Duchamp offered a potent analogy, describing art in its “raw state” as molasses, which is then “refined” into pure sugar by its spectators (1957: 818–19). The artist provides the source material, but it is the viewer – with her own viewpoint, taste, education, and experience – who discerns its meaning and relevance. Once art is shared with a larger public, the artist surrenders control to the unpredictable will and whims of “the people.”

In the glossary of New-Land-Marks public art is defined as “art placed in public places and spaces,” and those spaces as “open to everyone to use and enjoy” (Bach 2001: 153). If only it were that easy! The contours of art’s publicness are continually assessed on its physical location. But as Hilde Hein asserts, “The sheer presence of art out-of-doors or in a bus terminal or a hotel reception area does not automatically make that art public – no more than placing a tiger in a barnyard would make it a domestic animal” (1996: 4). I suggest we can best understand art’s public functions when we consider the interrelationship between content and audience; what art has to say, to whom it speaks, and the multiple messages it may convey. This approach prompts several questions: Is public art’s responsibility “to communicate with the public”? To do so, must it transcend an artist’s private or aesthetic concerns, and “generate human reaction” from a larger audience (Doezema 1977: 9, 14)? If so, how big must that audience be? As early as 1903 Charles Mulford Robinson’s Modern Civic Art called for art that was comprehensible and socially relevant to its audiences, addressing “the conditions before their very eyes” (1903: 34). But the notion of a shared artistic vocabulary has long since dissipated; as Arlene Raven contends, “public art isn’t a hero on a horse any more” (1989: 1). Through his experiences as a public art administrator Jerry Allen observed that the civic symbolism of the past was a language in which the public was no longer “fluent.” He queries: “Can substantially fewer than everybody be the audience for public art without destroying the public character of the art?” Allen concludes that since public art is “broad and heterogeneous,” speaking to wide though not necessarily large and generalized audiences, it would be best to define a “new public” for each work (1985: 246–7, 250–1). For Patricia Phillips art only becomes fully public when it takes “the idea of public as the genesis and subject for analysis”: “it is public because of the kinds of questions it chooses to ask or address, and not because of its accessibility or volume of viewers” (1992: 298). To this I would add that art’s publicness rests in the quality and impact of its exchanges with audiences. These do not hinge on wide acceptance, but on the art’s ability to extend reasonable and fair opportunities for members of the public to understand and negotiate their own relationships with it. I propose to conceive public art primarily through this populist agenda.

A few words must be said about the frictions – perceived and actual – between art elitists and populists, although caution must be exercised when dealing in such binaries. Generally, elitists emphasize the need for professionalism and formal education in the arts, art-specific institutions, and standards of quality according to established canons of taste. For them the boundaries of culture are fixed though fragile; they are perceived as centurions standing guard over and imposing their culture on others. Conversely, populists usually argue for the widest possible availability of art experiences, welcome cultural diversity, and promote public (often “amateur”) participation in and experiential relationships to art. Their pluralistic construction of artistic merit, open-ended definitions of taste, and insistence on art’s subjectivity and m utability prompt elitists to charge them with eroding culture’s quality and substance. These conflicting agendas result in what Margaret Wyszomirski identified as “the tension between the quest for excellence and the quest of equality.” She concludes that these “quests” might coalesce in a framework of cultural democracy, if we temper the notion of “elite” art audiences with “open-door exclusivity” (1982: 13–14, 17; Levine 1988: 255). I interpret this as an egalitarian impulse; to provide all interested parties with an entrée into the arts that nurtures confidence in their own critical faculties, but allows final decisions about engagement to rest with each individual. Yet such agency can be hampered by what Miwon Kwon identifies as art’s great myth: the presumption that it is “good” and “everybody wants it” (Arning, Chin, Jacob, and Kwon 2006).

Edward Arian outlined the premises of cultural democracy: art experiences develop good citizenship and enhance the quality of life; all citizens have the right to art experiences, the provision of which “is a public responsibility not unlike health and education”; and people of all backgrounds and classes are desirous of art experiences when presented with options to engage in such. These principles manifest themselves in a specifically populist approach as codified in American arts legislation: emphasis on broad-based exposure to and consumption of the arts; conviction that art contributes to individual humanistic growth; a belief that government should foster each citizen’s development on behalf of its own welfare; the need to showcase and support the talent of artists; and an effort to make the arts part of people’s everyday lives. But Arian asserts that cultural democracy exists only when people are able to assess “their cultural needs and determine the programs that will best meet those needs and express their individual identities” (1989: 3-5, 24–9; Kardon 1980: 8). Though disparate, the sites and works of decidedly populist public art share at least one if not all of the following three qualities. First, they create immersive, experiential environments: instead of building independent objects around which audiences must negotiate, designers usually produce enveloping settings to traverse through. Next, each engenders highly proactive relationships with visitors, predicated on participatory interaction, not passive viewership. And finally, they are frequently private ventures or public-private partnerships; without portending to a false sense of egalitarianism, these are often more inviting and potentially civic-spirited than their typical public art counterparts.

In 1981 John Beardsley argued that most discussions of public art were limited to issues of physical rather than emotional or intellectual accessibility (1981b: 43). Since that time there have been many efforts to broaden public art’s accessibility, with mixed results. I contend that art becomes most fully public when it has palpable populist sentiments – the extension of emotional and intellectual, as well as physical, accessibility to the audience – not a pretension toward such. Unfettered physical access is an empty gesture if the public does not feel other forms of accessibility are within its grasp too. Accordingly the placement, funding, and content of public art will be scrutinized here as related to audience engagement. Assessments of audience response made throughout the text are based upon years of research, including my personal observations of and conversations with members of the public. The book begins with an overview of American public art’s “official” history since the early twentieth century, when governmental programs nurtured notions of cultural democracy. The second chapter considers artworks that fit within conventional paradigms of public art, but evidence heightened populist intent. Chapter 3 examines interrelationships between art museums and public art, and queries how museums can further enhance their well-intentioned attempts at civic engagement. In the fourth chapter we encounter private patrons and industry that have succeeded in capturing the public’s imagination, and ask what public artists and administrators can learn from them. Chapter 5 argues for viewers’ increased agency to determine the levels of engagement with art and merits of their own art experiences, whether these be intentional or not. The concluding chapter addresses some persistent woes that often accompany public art and works that manage to avoid these, highlighting venues and situations in which populist public art thrives, and could do so in the future.

Although focused on the United States, the wider critical scope of the questions raised here is relevant to public art elsewhere. The US is a vast and greatly differentiated country, with nearly limitless local artistic dialects and regional cultures. In an increasingly pluralistic society, Beardsley reminds us, there are no coherent belief systems or definitive interpretations; “public values are not universal, but a function of their epoch and locale. … An art that expresses the values of all the people is impossible to achieve” (1981b: 43–4). In The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey made much the same observation, noting that the “public” always changes with time and place, and suggesting that such a public is “too diffused and scattered and too intricate in composition” to be treated as a holistic entity (1927: 33, 137). An attempt to discern a unitary national aesthetic or any such consensus is futile. But while a single vox populi cannot exist, this book strives to identify and contextualize dominant or recurrent traits shared among the spectrum of American sensibilities, and provide a fuller understanding of our shared culture and more accurate barometers of our tastes. To do so will lead to some sources that critics might regard as unsophisticated or unworthy as “art.” In his sensitive study of Holocaust memorials, James Young observes that traditional modes of art historical inquiry cannot fully accommodate the “social life” of public art, which fuses art, popular culture, historical memory, and political consequences. He proclaims: “Rather than patronizing mass tastes, we must recognize that public taste carries weight” (1993: 11–13). But while definitions of “high” and “low” culture continually shift, “popular culture” remains maligned by those seeking to “maintain their ideological authority by defining ‘good’ and ‘bad’ culture.” We need to recognize popular culture as “a potentially powerful and progressive political force,” which liberates its makers and users from “the top-down strictures of high culture” to subvert the “dominant notions of taste” (Jenkins, McPherson, and Shattuc 2002: 26–8).

In No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture, Andrew Ross warns against taking a “conspiratorial view” of mass culture as a monolithic, “profitable opiate” imposed on a passive public of consumers that uncritically accepts such culture. He posits that critics who take such dim views of popular culture engage in an undemocratic sort of intellectual hysteria, or sample that culture only to reinforce their status as they are “slumming” it. Conversely, other critics unquestioningly embrace popular culture’s “gee-whizzery” (1989: 4–5, 7, 45, 50–2). I wish to do none of the above. My populist perspective seeks balance between the hypercritical and uncritical nodes; to reorient our appreciation for artworks already absorbed into the canon, highlight the viewer’s role, and suggest an expanded terrain for public art. The intent is not to measure “successes” and “failures,” but rather to assess art’s publicness and engage in a jargon-free discussion of its pertinent issues. By proposing a more widely constituted domain for the study and practice of public art, disparate artworks, organizations, and individuals might be able to coexist, if not agree. The complications brought by public art’s complexity are also its opportunities. Though “public art” cannot be pinned down with a single, reductive definition, hopefully a more panoramic view of the field shall emerge here. Like Duchamp, I recognize there is always a gap between intention and realization; this text strives to be informative and provocative, while leaving readers enough intellectual elbow room to reach different and contradictory conclusions. The book is in a perpetually “raw state,” and readers are invited to visit their own “refinements” upon it.


Supposedly writing is a solitary journey, but without the help and support of others I could not have written this book. First I want to thank my editor, Jayne Fargnoli. She believed in this project from our first tentative conversation about it, and brought a keen intellect, kindness, and expert stewardship to every step of the process. Ken Provencher, Margot Morse, and Annette Abel were also invaluable resources, as have been the many other helpful people at Blackwell Publishing.

My colleagues at Emerson College, especially those in the Department of Visual and Media Arts (VMA), have been wonderfully encouraging and enthusiastic about the book. I would also like to thank the administration of Emerson College, particularly Jacqueline Liebergott, Linda Moore, Grafton Nunes, and Michael Selig. The College provided both financial and intellectual resources, most notably two Faculty Advancement Fund Grants that gave me precious time to work on the text, and the Mann Stearns Distinguished Faculty Award, which funded essential research travel. I must also acknowledge our excellent staff in the VMA department, including several terrific graduate assistants.

My students at Emerson have been a continued source of delight and enlightenment. In particular, those students in my public art seminar courses in the Fall 2005 and Fall 2006 semesters contributed greatly to my thoughts on this subject. Without all of you, this would have been a far different, and much less interesting, book.

I had many illuminating discussions along the way with colleagues, friends, and family that had direct bearing on the text, too many to mention though my thanks are sincere. Harriet Senie’s intelligence, candor, and compassion made for an excellent sounding board on many occasions. She continues to remind me of the excitement to be found in public art. Mags Harries, Lajos Héder, and Robert Sabal all generously shared their time, art, and good conversation. Sam Binkley and Eric Gordon, who were writing their own books at the same time, offered empathic camaraderie. Therese Dolan, Gerald Silk, and Laura Watts Sommer manage to humanize academia when I need it most. And Brooke A. Knight, always my first and last reader, was a constant companion throughout the process. Not only did he offer moral support and constructive criticism, but he took several of the wonderful photographs included here.

I would also like to thank my parents, Harold and Elaine Krause, who accompanied me to see The Gates and reconfirmed my suspicion that public art had a different story to tell. And my daughter, Beatrix Marcel, who looks with her heart as much as her eyes.