Quality in Public Art?

How do you determine quality in Public Art?

John with Hammering Man by Jonathon Borofsky

Is this art?

I use three criterion to determine if a public artwork is of the highest quality: engaging form; its relation to its site and community; and layers of meaning.

First, the form of the work must be engaging in some way; either beautiful (whatever that is?!), provocative, sensuous, dramatic, subtle, or attractive. These are incredibly subjective values and everyone will have their own basis for this aesthetic decision. Sometimes sheer large scale causes it to be engaging; sometimes it is intriguing because it is subtle and the joy of its discovery makes it engaging. Sometimes its color does it; or its materials. Or its structure is intriguing, like Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” (see episode 1).  Or sometimes it is recognizable historic figures like Mount Rushmore, which also relies on scale and location. But the bottom line is that it must eventually be noticed by the public and it draws the audience in to learn more. This is what I call the first step in my theory “Public Art’s Avenue of Accessibility”. …the first level of public access to the understanding of the art.

Secondly, I look to see how the work engages its site, both physically and conceptually. Does it fit well into the parameters of its plaza, hillside, sidewalk, building façade, etc.  We call this “site-specificity”. Does it feel comfortable in terms of scale, materials, design, aesthetic,  structure, and public safety. Or is it meant to be confrontational and aggressive in its location, meant to challenge the viewer and make him/her ask questions about the work or site. Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” in New York City is an example of this kind of work, but ultimately failed as public art because it was removed from its site due to public protest.

Then how does it relate to its site conceptually? Does it refer to the history of the place, or its community values, or the social traffic patterns of the site? “Dance Steps on Broadway” (See video promo with “Dance Steps on Broadway) in Seattle is a good example of this.  Most importantly, does it “give voice” to that particular community, place, or environment in some intriguing way? Let’s call this “socio-specificity”. Public art that does this in an effective way usually becomes a positive symbol for a community.  These are additional points of “access”.

Finally, I look for layers of meaning in a given public artwork that unveil themselves over time and continued interaction with the work. Like an onion getting peeled, more and more layers become evident as you reach the core. The art educated learn how to peel and discover these layers quickly; the general public may need more time. But good public art contains layers of meaning intended by the artist that reveal themselves to anyone who is willing to engage and learn about the work.  In other words, there is always “more to public art than meets the eye”. ..and these layers are accessible to anyone willing to do the discovery work.

Hammering Man in Frankfort, Germany

"Hammering Man" by Jonathan Borofsky in Frankfort

To use Seattle’s “Hammering Man” again as an example (one of my favorite pieces in my hometown), first its massive scale draws you in. It’s big at 60’ tall, black, and its kinetic…the actual physical movement draws the viewer right in! It was designed to fit perfectly into its small plaza site, intending to dwarf the viewers and passers-by, and making him heroic in our eyes. Its first layer of meaning is that it clearly represents the worker, hammering away 20 hours a day every day. It celebrates the worker in our society.  Second layer: but he doesn’t have a name, he’s only got a number…he is the anonymous worker that has a cold brand and no name.  The sculpture is a memorial to the anonymous laborer that is the glue that holds our society and economy together. Perhaps everyone can relate to him? Then, third layer, if you dig a little deeper and investigate the artist’s intentions, you would discover that he is not the only “Hammering Man” of gigantic scale that he has made. In fact the artist intends to set them up all around the world, in a global series,  that speaks to the worker in different societies and economic structures. Already there are Hammering Men in Japan and Germany, for example.  So this work is part of a global work that celebrates workers around the world!  Lot’s of layers…get it?!  (Watch a video segment from the program You Call That Art?! about Jonathan Borofsky’s “Hammering Man.”)

Of course artists also want you to bring your own interpretations to any given public artwork. Artists love it when you come up with your own interesting perspectives. So it’s not a closed question with one right answer. There are many interpretations that can simply be inspired by the artwork.  Maybe you relate to the Hammering Man for personal reasons, let’s say he reminds you of your grandfather who was a carpenter. It’s great that you would have such a personal connection to the artwork! Our show will share other people’s interpretations and reactions to various pieces, and I request that you share your views on our blog and Facebook sites. I look for form, relation to site, and meaning…what do you look for? Let’s hear from you!

Watch a promo from the public TV program You Call That Art?!

About The Author

John T. Young

John T. Young, host and writer, is a renowned artist in his own right. He’s also Professor of Sculpture and Public Art at The University of Washington in Seattle

Other posts byJohn T. Young

Author his web sitehttp://youcalltahtart.net

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10 2010

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