The moment public art really first made sense and thrilled me into thinking about creating public work was entering the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Soaking up all of those wonderful sculptures which I knew only from books. I didn’t even know at the time that the David was not the original but a much later copy, with Michelangelo’s original work tucked away in the Accademia. What a revelation to see these glorious works by Donatello, Giambologna and all casually dropped down in the middle of a busy town square.
Coming from New York, I was not totally ignorant of outdoor sculpture. Living in Brooklyn, I was very aware of Prospect Park’s wonderful Civil War monument dedicated to the ‘Defenders of the Union’. There were several sculptors involved, the most famous being Thomas Eakins who created the horses, and new bits kept being added until 1892. It is a grand sculpture for what is called Grand Army Plaza but the arch bears little relation to the busy traffic intersection it sits in. You have to risk your life scampering across lanes of racing cars to even get close enough to see the works. Most of the contemporary public sculpture in New York was ‘trophy’ pieces for the front of gleaming office buildings. But then there was the wonderful Paul Manship sculptures for Central Park. These were in really public spaces open to all, and accessible and joyous.
What is public art anyway?
Spot the public art in the picture below. Eros is dwarfed by the scale of all the advertising. And which evokes desire better – desire for love symbolised by a Greek goddess, or desire for a Coca Cola? How wonderful it would be if those huge LED animated billboards were about something other than stuff to buy. Some artists have done just that, notably Jenny Holzer in Times Square. But isn’t signage the most visible form of urban public art? How about rethinking the Coca Cola sign in Piccadilly Circus to emphasize the artwork?
In a very hierarchical world, it was easy to know who the great and the good were. And these of course were to be immortalised in a sculpture in a town square. Hence every town and village in Italy has its share of things dedicated to Vittorio Emanuelle – a piazza, a street, and of course the obligatory equestrian statue. David was also a hero, if a biblical one. This slayer of giants was a symbolic hero to an upstart Florence challenging the authority of Rome. Of course this tendency to hero worship still exists, with statues to sports heroes being erected outside the football stadium, or Charlie Chaplin in Leicester Square. But don’t they seem a bit kitsch now?
In contemporary public art, the hero being portrayed in the sculpture has become the artist. The monumental sculpture is a testament to the wealth, vision, ambition, courage and importance of the creator. You would be hard pressed to name a single one of the masters who created the bronze monuments to heroes of he past, but recent gargantuan sculptures immortalise the artists who created them.
An Argument for Collaborative Public Art
If it is the creative artist who is to be the named author and the hero of his own public art, then maybe the real hero of these works is creativity itself. Maybe creativity is one of the very few universally recognised heroic traits. If that is the case, I’d like to suggest that this creativity is shared with the people who actually animate the public spaces. Share the creativity! Collaborate as much as possible. Share the sense of ownership with people. This will separate the art away from the bombardment of consumerist advertising, or self-aggrandisement, and false notions of what people actually are. The artist enjoys the fruits of creativity, but let him share that. After all, we are now all film makers, journalists, photographers etc. with our mobile phones at the ready. Let’s carry this democratisation of art and literature out into the streets and make it really resonate.
Read part two of this blog Towards a Collaborative Public Art
For more about my collaborative public art projects, click here.