Public art: an ongoing debate

Sculptures in parks, chalk drawings on pavements, graffiti art in tube stations… throughout the last few decades, art has trickled out of private saloons and underground galleries to public spaces in unprecedented amounts. Of course, it’s a phenomenon which has always been around, but nowadays it is hard to come across a city or town without one example of public art – alongside a case of public art controversy.

Sometimes, collective grumbling is about the decrease in the functionality of the public space in question, like Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981), which after much debate was pulled down under court order in 1989. Controversy can also arise from a work being inappropriate for the diverse viewing public, or about its costly maintenance – a factor which is more often the case than many realise, as even in large cities the municipality’s “Percent for Art” seldom reaches 1%.

However, when the dispute on an artwork stems from neither its treatment of a racy subject, nor its impracticality, nor even its cost – but from the lack of a building permit – it is hard not to wonder at the excuses people can resort to in order to get rid of something they consider an eyesore.

That is the case with a sculpture in Sag Harbor, NY, which had eighteen public officials from this village of 2,377 inhabitants mulling over its fate last week. Created by Jewish-American artist Larry Rivers in 1969, the sculpture is a pair of white, shapely legs striding forwards. Owned by Janet Lehr, an East Hamptons gallery owner, it is on display outside her house – understandably so, as it is nearly 5 metres high.

The debate around this sculpture centres around the fact that its height and location violates local building regulations, which the owner has tried to rebuke on the simple basis that it is not a building, but an artwork. Yet that is precisely where she should have expected to hit a dead end.

This is when the problem arising from public art seems to unavoidably morph into a problem about defining what constitutes art. As with the Sag Harbor case, it is cloaked in legislative phrasing which sensitively side steps what could be the real issue: it’s just too odd or displaced to look at everyday. Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion about what they find aesthetically pleasing. Also, because of the general public’s varied degree of exposure to art, it would be naive to expect, for instance, everyone to be okay with seeing one of Damien Hirst’s animal cross-sections on the corner of their street.

Nevertheless, when does it go from a valid complaint on an artwork that is truly too problematic to maintain, to petty, collective disapproval? And is this even disapproval of the artwork itself, or rather the values and lifestyle it represents? One of Lehr’s displeased neighbours was quoted saying “this isn’t Greenwich Village” (an upper middle class district of Manhattan with a bustling art scene) in response to why he wants the legs gone.

Unfortunately, this highlights an important aspect to public art controversy which people don’t like to elaborate on, and indeed prefer to disguise behind the veneer of public duty or concern: the wide assumption that those who create or appreciate art are eccentric, disdainful of family values, rich enough to purchase a 5 metre pair of legs and arrogant enough to show it off.

What doesn’t seem to be considered is that bringing art out of the so-called exclusivity of where it is usually found and into the public eye is a crucial part of the process of changing this reputation. The public artwork is there to express whatever its artist thought was important enough to require the attention of the widest possible audience. Its not there to represent some social class, lifestyle, or level of education that is unattainable to the viewer and accusatory of their personal tastes – only the eye of the beholder makes it so.