Conversations about Public Art
by Samuel Jones
The Guardian critic, Jonathan Jones, will be speaking in the debate this evening and has written an article today arguing that ‘no, they bloody well can't’.
Well, that raises several questions. Trusted by whom? Other members of the public (which is tautological), a group of experts (Critics? Artists? Consultants? Gallerists? … they don’t always agree with each other either and who defines them?). The taxpayer? The present? The future?
Challenging interventions that have often been met with rejection by both the public and critics alike – Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc , Jacob Epstein’s Rima – are important by the very fact that they are challenging. The questions that they pose to consensus are vital parts of a democratic process and discussion. See Caroline Levine’s very good book – Provoking Democracy and also Mark Wallinger’s State Britain, a reflection on Brian Haw’s Parliament Square protest.
In his article, Jonathan Jones takes an either or position. On the one hand, he argues, ‘the secret to finding great art for public spaces – and, for that matter, great art to change attitudes to disfigurement – is to find talented artists who happen to be interested in working in that arena. Then let them indulge themselves’. On the other is the alternative of public choice.
Why not both?
Artistic and creative production are about values and ideas and – especially when public – are part of what makes up our public realm, and that should be about conversation.
My response to the question ‘Can the public be trusted to choose public art?’ is that if art that is in the public realm doesn’t speak to its audience, and the values and opinions that underlie its production are not communicated, then how public is it and just what kind of conversation in the public realm speaks to a few rather than the many?