On public art and public life
“All great art is born of the metropolis,” wrote Ezra Pound.
I wouldn’t go that far. For every Pound there’s a Wordsworth, for every Caillebotte a Constable – and anyway, in this moment when the city sprawls to infinity and the Ladies’ Mile has been reduced to a glorified strip mall, the division between the city and the suburbs or country is not so easily drawn. But when I think of the art I care most about, much of it does seem to come from, and reflect the form of, the furnaces of our cities: turbulent, clangorous, a mess of ideas and bodies. Art is almost never an escape from urban life; far more often, it’s its crucible.
Besides, I am wedded to the city, to my hometown of New York and to others I’ve loved and abandoned. The city is all I know. But New York is in trouble. It’s not just the economic “crisis” that with each passing season looks more and more like a permanent, possibly terminal condition. It’s not just the loss of global importance and power over the past decade or so, which has made the very idea of migrating to New York as a young artist or writer into a laughable anachronism. It’s something more insidious than that. What really keeps me up at night is the fear that New York is losing its public character, some hard-to-define common factor that binds the city together, makes it work, transforms a simple agglomeration of people into something civic. The whole idea of a shared city is disappearing, and not just in political terms. Privatization, more than just a political and economic strategy, is a social phenomenon – one that you can feel more and more acutely each year. One of the reasons Occupy Wall Street shook the city as much as it did last fall was because, despite its digital savvy, the movement insisted on acting in public, in the space of the city’s streets the squares: that was the greatest of its unspoken demands. And it says something about how far we’ve fallen that the coming together of citizens in a public square, even just to talk and think, now seems like a radical proposition.
My career, first as a student and then as a writer and critic, has had a double focus: I care deeply about art’s position in society and indeed about society as such, but at the same time I’ve always insisted that art is its own end, not an illustration or a superstructure. Perhaps that’s why I gravitated to public art from a young age, and why some of my first strong memories of art are of public works: Henry Moore in a park near my parents’ house, Paul Manship’s Prometheus in Rockefeller Center. In high school I learned everything I could about Creative Time, who had just launched a program in Times Square. There may even have been a fifteenth-rate imitation Jenny Holzer project I tried out as a teenager, but I’m not admitting to it.
At a moment when private interests seem to be overtaking the public sphere, and with art absorbed ever further into the logic of the market, it’s essential to reassert our common ownership of the city and defend art’s special ability to transform urban space, and urban experience along with it. But public art remains a bit of an ugly stepsister in the art world, and although public art has a larger audience than art in museums or galleries – millions of viewers every year – it receives far less critical attention. We usually overprivilege novelty or spectacle when we talk about public art, and this goes double for those without any real artistic commitment, real estate developers or marketing zombies for whom the Louise Nevelsons near Wall Street and the mercifully departed Cow Parade are two equally valid urban interventions. But art critics, when they do deign to take public art seriously, don’t always engage with the civic questions that public art engenders. Art in a white cube or black box often makes a claim to autonomy (whether validly or invalidly is your call), but art in public space forces us to confront history, civic responsibility, registers of address, and a dozen other questions. They cannot be brushed away.
Art in Common is, above all, an effort to give public art the seriousness it deserves, and to insist as forcefully as possible that the city belongs to all of us. To that end, I’ll be bouncing around New York and bringing out the art we all live with every day, most of which regrettably recedes into the city’s ever-cleaner backdrop. Mostly I’ll be looking at permanently installed works, though temporary projects may also make an appearance now and then. The focus will be on art after World War II, though I do have a real fondness for some of the old-school sculptures that dot the city, such as the killer statue of a seated William Seward at 23rd and 5th. Art in Common will also engage in a kind of archaeology of the present, revisiting lost or dismantled works of public art, from destroyed works like Serra’s Tilted Arc to more intentionally ephemeral ones; I’ll also be reassessing forgotten interventions, such as an extraordinary work of Latin American modernism that lies crumbling in Fort Tryon Park uptown.
Art in Common has a dual time signature: it’s both present-tense and archival. Each entry features a geotag, a little bit of metadata that pinpoints a work of art to a spot on the map of New York. Moreover, all of the entries will be aggregated onto one master map of the city. It’s not much use yet, of course, but over time the map should fill up to offer an aesthetic overlay of New York, helping to create new circuits among present artworks and past ones.
One final note: I have an abiding interest in public art, but I don’t overestimate it. Much of what passes for public art is dreck, as I recall every time I pass this miserable light blue bird sculpture near my apartment, a disaster of ornithological kitsch. And public art gains no special aesthetic value simply by being in public; I have never been the sort of critic who believes that museums and other elite institutions negate civic engagement, and we all should just take it to the streets. In a way all art is public, as it belongs ultimately to our common heritage; public art is just more upfront about it. What truly matters, at bottom, is not the location of art but the experience of art. As Rilke learned with such finality in the Greek wing of the Louvre one day, art has a unique capacity to make demands of us, to force us to reckon with our lives and our futures, individually and collectively. So if public art has a principal virtue, it is not to decorate our ever more privatized streets or to offer some aesthetic relief in a harried urban existence. It is instead to remind us, day after day, that the lives we live can be the stuff of art as well.