Art and the Public

By Carpenter, B. Stephen, II | Art Education, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Art and the Public


Carpenter, B. Stephen, II, Art Education


"For any meaningful understanding of public art, it must be viewed in the complex matrix in which it is conceived, - commissioned, built, and finally, received.

Much more is required than a formal analysis of the works, although the place of public art in the history of art as well as its value as art cannot be overlooked" (Senie & Webster, 1992, p. xi). Examples of public art include statues, memorials, historic buildings, gardens, and large sculptures in parks and courtyards. These works exist in the cities and towns in which we live and embody the historical and cultural meanings of the locales where they are on display. Suzanne Lacy (1995) describes contemporary public art as being very different from the traditional "cannons in the park" genre with which we are probably most familiar. She calls these works "new genre public art" because they deal with "some of the most profound issues of our time" and respond to "an internal necessity perceived by the artist in collaboration with his or her audience" (p. 19). Both traditional and more contemporary approaches to public art often function as visual memorials to leaders, social issues, wars, and other tragic events of the past and present. Now, thanks to television and the Internet, the matrix in which public art of all kinds is conceived, commissioned, built, and received continues to expand. The range of possibilities for these works daily becomes more and more multifaceted.

Putting works of art into the public arena can sometimes be a complicated and controversial endeavor (Senie & Webster, 1992) because not everyone shares the same set of beliefs and values about works of art. For example, artist judy Baca (1995) recalls an experience with a high school studenta member of her Great Wall of Los Angeles projectwho was called to the principal's office for spray painting the walls of his school. In his community, this student was an important graffiti artist. After she arrived in the principal's office, Baca learned that the youth had been accused of writing on the school walls and that such behavior demonstrated a lack of respect for school property. According to Baca (1995), at the center of this situation were "two different notions of beauty and order" and "a dispute over ownership of the school" (p. 137). From the boy's perspective he had improved the aesthetic value of the school, whereas the principal believed that the school had been defaced and devalued. What are we to do about this type of "public art"? And now, in the technology age, what artistic and educational possibilities exist for art in and for the public?

This issue of the journal centers on the various ways that art lives within and is presented to the public. In some cases, the public is brought to a work and informed of relevant historical and contextual information. In others, the works enrich the significance of the cities like Glasgow, Scotland; Tucson, Arizona; and Richmond, Kentucky. These articles encourage students and teachers to consider the relationships between the public and art through written and visual inquiry. Some articles demonstrate how students and the general public can gain access to art through the World Wide Web. …

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