Why is Art in the Streets?
Art and the Public
Public art is a free-standing art genre which began being developed in the middle of the 20th Century, originally in the USA and Western Europe, nowadays seen all around the world. Its basic feature is that the art is aimed at the public. That is the source of both its uniqueness and its problems. A wide scale of meanings often containing sediments of various social frustrations is connected with the word public. Public is what is not owned by anybody and no one is responsible for, public is what has all the personal relationship evaporated from. How could something so personal be connected with such a cold, abstract phenomenon?
The public is a pluralist subject, more precisely one of the many existing pluralist subjects. It is different from such subjects as family, neighbours, schoolmates, work colleagues and also such large groups as the nation, religious community and so on. In contrast to these collective subjects the public lacks any positive and integrating determination. It consists of anonymous components which have not got their own face. Is it possible to have a dialogue with such an abstract subject? Is it possible to send a message to it and wait for its response?
As far as communication is concerned we can also identify two groups: in the first one the subject is emitting a message for a recipient. In this case the concrete message is happening at the background of the known context. In the second case the message is sent “into the air”, to an unknown recipient, to everybody who can decipher the code of the message. A coded message with its own context is intended for the anonymous subject and enters into an unknown random context. This is the case with the communication with the public and is firmly bound with the existence of the public. Anytime within the long history of mankind there has existed what could be called “public“, and that was possible only in times of democracy and social establishment, there also existed a communication with an anonymous subject. This means of communication probably existed in ancient Rome but in the Christian world there prevailed a kind of communication wherein messages were being received in the known context. Christianity created an universal concept of the world – every creature is made by the one God – but practically limited this universality to the community of believers. A Christian community does not have the anonymity and generality of the public.
With democratic revolution and the rise of public society, where universal status of the individual lost the background of common understanding, a common context and structure of the human message disappeared. It signified a new social role and a new strategy for art. It received new anonymous recipients and was forced to seek a new status of its existence. Art found that in the autonomy: from the end of the 18th century art became a detached human activity, a social institution developing its own institutional organs: schools, museums, a theory based on the aesthetic judgement. Art as a result of an individual’s understanding of the world is appealing to an anonymous subject – to the public: an artist does not emit his very personal message to the particular individual or social group but to everybody, to the public and through that the most basic conflict arises, the conflict between life and the thinking of individuals and social rules and social institutions. After art got its autonomy in the 18th century, which was its important feature of both the ontological and practical existence, its social and institutional rules were developed, mainly the form of presentation in museums and galleries, private collections and gradually also thus has aroused a social group which understands the language of art. Probably also the target of the art messages has changed within the two centuries of art’s autonomy development: it is likely that nowadays an artist sometimes addresses his message not to the anonymous subject, the public, but mainly to the experienced subject, his academic colleagues, art critics or the art world. Furthermore, nowadays the meaning of art hopefully contains the secrets of human existence and not some partial questions of the autonomous subject. The public art genesis during the 1960s is just a natural attempt to recreate the social roles, which art gained within the democratic revolution: to reflect the current model of reality made by man, the social orders, the gnoseological procedures, the valuation hierarchy, the language and other institutions and other partial features of the open relationship of the individual and society.
Art and Reality
To understand the dialogue between the artist and society it is important to agree on the form of the so called reality. “An artist is showing us his personal fantasy and who is supposed to deal with it,” says the practically thinking man. An egg with bacon for breakfast is not such an outright and unproblematic matter either. It is a culinary event, the portion of the fat increasing the cholesterol level, regionally-cultural feature, expression of the personal attitude to the world etc. The reality we live in as an open, never ending process of semiosis – generating the attributes we connect some content with, we bring our life attitudes into line with that and within that we create new relationships of signs and their contents. Semiosis is an ungraspable process where ideas and figures are inseparable from their context. People usually get orientated in this process thanks to the implicit understanding, presentiment, and only in concrete instances, where definite premises are available, thanks to the rational logics.
Within the trade and political interests study the sophisticated investigations an actual form of reality, interests, moods, everyday habits, aims in life and weak points of people of contemporary society, to use this knowledge. Also art looks for deeper relationships beneath established schemes of human actions, but not with the aim of using their exploration for the own benefit. The joy from searching, finding that practical form of reality is revealed a fascinating mystery is a reason for art production. The same question keeps coming up: how to communicate with the public this personal joy derived from looking for the sense of human existence?
Public and Politics
The term public – and corresponding form of human society determined by the impersonal pronoun “everybody” – is a product of the democratic political system. An equation of all the individuals under the testimony is an important component of democracy. The loss of individuality and impersonal coldness are unavoidable products of political constitution of what we call the general public. Despite that is the public a sui juris subject and not an object in someone’s hands. This subject shows his face in confrontation with the political power, mainly in consequence of exercitation of the political violence. In totalitarian regimes the public was made to accept an ideological dogma and was forced on passivity of the tame crowd. We were witnesses of the process when the passivity of the tame crowd was forced on by a combination of violence and seduction in the period of normalization in the seventies and eighties in Czechoslovakia. Nowadays the relative passivity of the public is encouraged by a massive offer of goods, by violation and confiscation of political power, propaganda and corruption. Some form of political violence during democracy is unavoidable for fulfilling the rules and that is why it is difficult to find the borders of using and abusing the power. Paul Ricoeur thinks that only one help exists against the power abuse and it is “vigilance of every single one citizen“.(1)
How to ensure a vigilance of the public? Undoubtedly the main source of the public vigilance is education, within the wide meaning of this word that is sense of the need and desire of every human being to getting to know and understand our own opportunities. The education does not bring only skills and ways of profitable securing in the world, but also culture, that means deeper understanding human situation and relation ships, more wise and effective foundation of priorities, the sense of dependence on other people and on what I can not influence in my surroundings. An educated man who understood deeper connection of his life cannot find his fate satisfaction in accumulation of goods.
Potential of Art
Within the process of education understood like a craving for knowledge has the art an unsubstitutable role given by a wide range of traditional possibilities. Among those an aesthetisation of environment and individualisation of a place are not the most important. Other aspects of the art seem to be more important (2). Firstly, it is a fact that a piece of art, due to its ontological nature, is an ideal object. It is not a part of the group of material objects but something from the realm of ideas. An art work is an experience, which we can realize through facing a painting, sculpture or whatever form it takes. A common artistic message is a challenge to switch our everyday purpose-built attention to free movement of thinking, or in other words dreaming or fantasizing, however the meaning of the dream or fantasy in the life of both the individual and normal society could be denied simply by an economic rationalist. In communicating the artistic message the artist presumes that the receiver is open to receiving the message, that they can take their mind away from limitations enforced by everyday life imaginations forced by a practical life for a short time and to confront own experience with new relationship models. A communication with a piece of art presumes an idealistic acceptance, where an old reality opens into a field of new possibilities.
An ideal nature of the piece of art complies with a fact that it is served as a whole (as a union of figure and background). A piece of art shows us a certain matter or an event, but in such a way that its meaning is better understood due to the context, from its style or the way it is presented. A piece of art gives us its content in the form of a whole, which includes also us alone. It comes in such a way which involves us in its “world”. And so it reminds us that our ordinary world, which we instinctively create as a background to our everyday life, is created by us. A piece of art allows one to see a vision of our everyday experience somehow out of sync, in new connections, and thanks to that liberate one from the routine of provision.
A piece of art which is presented in a gallery and also the one which is located in the public space is always a result of the individual’s action, whether we think about the artist or the one who receipts. A subjective feeling does not mean “only subjective”. On the contrary, only subjective perception is able to feel the unspoken, undefined. It is, as well as a dream or fantasy, an important part of the life of individual and all of society. The public, whether it is stigmatized by an anonymity or not, is composed of individuals, individual experience or understanding the source of meanings of all the things and the world as a whole we live in.
The individual character of the relationship with a piece of art also involves an important and irremovable uncertainty stigmatising this relationship. “An artistic quality is a vague idea. Not even you art critics are able to agree on it.” This sentence is often pronounced by economic rationalists and for them it acts as a signal for the art impeachment and its impotence for harmonic development of society. In reality it is an attribute of an unobjectified uncertainty, one of the important positive attributes of art and its social role. Objectivity is an attribute of communication, not an attribute of the existing world. Objectivity is constructed by man by creating a set of signs which are identical for everybody. To understand the human reality as an objective one must reduce the real world we were born in down to a human work. A piece of art with its uncertainty reminds us of fundamental uncertainty, where we live in the world, which has not been made by us. An important attribute also of the most perfect piece of art is its imperfection. This imperfection gives it life and demonstrates that it is a human endeavour, as much as all other political and life decisions.
Theoreticians find a certain form of bifurcation of “me” within the event of experiencing the piece of art, in terms of an aesthetic experience. The experience of a piece of art presents an ideological interaction between “me” and the work. This “me”, who is “reeled in” by the piece, is also watching itself in this “reeled in” experience, it could be expressed by a question “why am I watching this here?”, “what am I doing here, when I am experiencing the piece of art?” A question, where I am actually coming from this experience opens a perspective into reality – and also poses a question we do not know the answer to. We do not usually ask these questions as we think we already know the answers beforehand. The experience of a piece of art is one of those rare moments, when we reflect the “self-evidence“ of our lives and find out that we do not know anything about us “coming to the story“.
These are only a few important aspects of art (for example creativity is another one), which help us understand what role art could play in developing society. There are attributes of the art itself, it is not important if it is art in a gallery or in public space. A human being is a social creature, as was already known by Aristotle, and the relationship with another person contains the most intimate demonstration. Another person does not have to necessary mean the public, as we will try to emphasize further. The public is a collective subject, which got its content in the democratic political model. Art in a public space is different from that in a gallery not only because of its language, which should be close to the unprepared recipient, but also the character of its message, which should be adapted to the public context. This context is undoubtedly political if we understand the word political as a care of the life in community, in polis. If the main danger of the life in polis is passivity of the public, as was emphasized under the reign of totalitarian regimes in the last century, then it is that Ricoeur’s vigilance that is an important motivation for the art dialogue with public. The awakening of the public vigilance does not happen only as a result of the manifestation of the political failure; however the activist political art has its justification. A reflection of general “short-sightedness“ of the people which reduced their world to the small area determined by everyday consumption, including television and similar entertainment, as well as goods which are procured with money. In this world everything is clear, its priorities are those priorities which are presented by the neighbours, life is reduced to the competition classified by the size of bank account and this takes place in various social classes. The society which accepts such a passive way of existence is easily controlled by those in power. Political terror and seizing of power are not the only danger to the fate of the society. The system itself presents a similar danger, as it reduces democracy as a human coexistence to the free trade mechanism. Culture and art creativity are endangered by a strong weapon of economic rationalism which “is hiding behind the mask of democracy”(3) : public interest or lack of interest is the only criteria of the existing human values for the market fundamentalists. At first sight the market, a manifestation of personal interest of the most individuals, seems to be a guarantee of harmonious development of society. In reality a trade mechanism – as all the mechanisms made by men – it functions only in the situation meted out by the power holders. The free trade mechanism has no tools with which to protect it from internal destruction and due to that the harmonious development of society. Only with association with other components of democratic control, such as independent courts, media independence, freedom of speech, equality before the law, can free trade as a pro-social component function. Unfortunately also upon the formal compliance of all these principals could, as we know, come to its modification by the political power holders. If the passivity of the society permits such a modification.
How can a politically vigilant society stop the power excesses? Mainly when it is able to create and save what we know as culture. A society of self-confident people which bases their self-confidence upon the clear social consciousness, upon the adoption of individuality and responsibility of all the individuals and also upon the ability to understand each other within the frameworks of totality, in where we are, who we are. Only such a society with a union of the individual and totality is healthy and able to resist the destabilizing influences of corruption and power confiscation.
A man controls his world thank to the institutions which he has made. Despite that he cannot transfer his human responsibility to them. A guarantee of harmonious and maintainable development of the society is a process of the independent human decision and not some objective law, which was a class-struggle during communism and is a trade mechanism nowadays. Art cannot directly influence the social and political situation, but can clearly and convincingly show aspects of the complicated and open process of semiosis, where human decisions mature. At the same time it demonstrates the main role of the individual in this process. Individuals have a key role within the framework of the current form of the human society, or rather nowadays within the framework of the public. This is what justifies the existence of the Sculptures in the Streets.
(1) Paul Ricoeur, Etika a politika, in: Etika a politika. Umenie proti totalite. Bratislava 1990,
(2 )For a detailed discussion of the aspects see: Vlastimil Zuska, Estetika. Úvod do současnosti tradiční disciplíny. Prague 2001.
(3 )Robert Palmer, a lecture on culture policy, Prague, Divadlo v Dlouhé (the Theatre at Dlouhá Street), 25. 6. 2008.
Published in the catalogue of the exhibition Sculpture in the Streets, Brno Art Open ´09.