The Aesthetics of Public Art
I have been thinking about public art – and how it seems almost to be a contradiction in terms these days. As I write this, I’m at the tail end of a summer of traveling, and have spent quite a lot of time in public spaces.
Walking around in London, I could see examples of outstanding public art: art that was made, and placed, so that passers-by can see, look, and enjoy – and to do so en route to other things. This kind of public art is ornamental and gratuitous, and in some ways is thus an indication of what it means to be human.
The lions of Trafalgar Square are an excellent example of this kind of public art. They are spectacular, and could easily be installed in a museum (if one could be found with sufficient space). They are the work of an artist; they are original work, not copies of some other, more famous public piece of art. And they are obviously successful as public art: people like them. Children climb on them (and if I had half a chance, I would too) and adults take photographs of them.
Now consider another kind of public art: the art that appears in modern hotel lobbies.
I am writing this while sitting in a hotel lobby, a very posh one that is clearly striving for an aesthetically pleasing look, and which very clearly has the money to do high-end interior decorating. In the lobby where I am sitting, there are two sculptures, both of vaguely female figures, in abstract textured bronze.
No one who has passed by has so much as turned their heads to look at them, much less paused to admire them. I cannot imagine anyone choosing to take a photograph of them. They are public-art-as-cultural-placeholder; they are in this lobby because, I suspect, people have a lingering sense that quasi-public places ought to have art. But this art is so generic, so neutral, that it is almost not there at all.
What troubles me is the suspicion that the blandness is intentional. Consider the prints that hang in hotel rooms. In my experience, they are always vaguely soothing abstract designs, or perhaps a collage of flowers, or (rarely) a landscape: nothing memorable, nothing that the eye lingers on, simply aesthetic background noise. Why not have prints of famous, beautiful, distinctive paintings? I might have seen a Monet print at some point – the water lily paintings have been reproduced so often, and in print form are so blandly nice to look at that, that they are sadly un-see-able – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a hotel-room print that made me think ‘I want to look at that and think about it.’
The problem isn’t that public spaces are inimical to real art. Consider the Renaissance paintings for public buildings – or local quirky coffee shops. I’ve been in quite a few small, local coffee shops (or small restaurants) that regularly displayed original artwork on the walls. In a place like that, as I drink my coffee, I can look at paintings or photography by local artists – people who signed their name to their work, not generic producers of ersatz culture. When I’m in a place like that, I don’t always care for the specific pieces of art in display, but that in itself speaks volumes: to like or dislike a particular painting is to engage with it in an aesthetic and imaginative way, an engagement that is simply not happening with the bland hotel-lobby sculptures in front of me as I write.
Modern public art seems designed to be bland, or to be aggressive, but it doesn’t have to be. Do we have examples of public art that are beautiful and engaging?