The Wall Street Journal just printed an interesting article by reporter Lucette Lagnado on a controversial Larry Rivers sculpture in Sag Harbor, recipe NY. The sculpture is of two nude legs, female, standing over 16 feet tall and is displayed outside of a private residence for the public to “enjoy”. It has become controversial for several reasons, but the biggest legal issue is whether it must subscribe to local “building” codes. The building codes in that upscale NY town state that structures above 16 feet tall must be permitted and approved by the historic and landmark committees. This work would not likely be approved. So must publicly displayed art subscribe to the building codes??
My view is that building codes per se are meant for habitable structures, like houses, stairways, electrical circuits, foundations, etc and are designed to protect the residents and the public from disasters like fires, earthquakes, storms and the like, as well as shoddy construction, so they require review by engineers for structural integrity. Technically speaking, a sculpture does not fall into the habitable structure category. However, it is very common practice in the genre of art that is displayed in publicly accessible areas to require a structural review by a licensed and certified engineer, to ensure that there is no danger present to a public audience and passersby. So if this Rivers sculpture could fall apart due to weak welds in high winds for example and land on a pedestrian sidewalk, it would be wise to have it evaluated by a structural engineer and certified for its safety and integrity. This also serves to relieve the artist, and/or commissioning agent or owner, of liability should something devastating occur, assuming the work was built to designed engineering requirements.
Alternatively, a “sculpture code” or “public art code” could be adopted by a city that outlines the engineering process and requirements that may be unique to public artwork, but this has not occurred in many cities, if any, to my knowledge. Some arts commissions have adopted across the board structural review guidelines, but they are not code. This seems like a fair solution, since artwork is usually not “lived in” the way a building is inhabited and would demand different criteria for approval. But there may be some issues that will require flexibility on the part of the evaluating engineers, since art is always unique in form and structure, and not always an isolated object but sometimes could be interactive and environmental or even architectural in nature. A thorny issue brought to light…..
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" 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?!
What is the difference between Public Art versus “private” art?
When I speak about “private art” I am generally referring to art that is found in museums, viagra galleries, healing and individual or corporate private collections. It is privately funded, meaning no tax dollars are used to purchase it. It is usually only seen by its owners, or employees of a given corporation, or most importantly, by people who willingly and voluntarily go to see art, such as at museums or galleries. They enter the doors of the museum wanting and expecting an art experience, oftentimes willing to pay the entrance fee for the experience. The artworks are usually paintings, drawings, photographs, some sculpture, and installation and conceptual artworks. The works can be “pretty” or sometimes can be extremely provocative dealing with hard hitting social and political themes that might be offensive to some. Because it has a willing and often art educated audience, these kind of difficult themes can be expected and desired by the viewers. The viewers enter expecting to be provoked, or aesthetically gratified by “beauty”. Good art is not always “pretty” and there is always more to Art than meets the eye (more on this later). Most importantly, private art is usually the free expression of an individual artist’s feelings, aesthetics, and ideas.
President Kennedy started the 1% for art law
Public Art has a very different agenda. It is usually found in the public domain, available for everyone and anyone to experience…public plazas, along highways, in train and bus stations, on sidewalks, on the outside of buildings, integrated into the exterior of buildings, integrated into the landscape architecture of a place, on buses, etc. It is often found out of doors, but can also exist inside public buildings, like airports for example. It is usually funded by tax dollars via the 1% For Art programs found across America, but not always. There is a lot of privately funded public art as well, often found on campuses and sculpture parks among other places, that are donated by wealthy and interested individuals or corporations, usually in return for tax write-offs. …a benefit of American philanthropic tax incentives. (See a video segment from the program You Call That Art?! on the 1% For Art program on our YouTube Channel.)
Public art usually takes the form of sculpture or murals, but there can be other experimental forms that occur on the public streets, such as performance art.
Its primary agenda is to give voice to the community in which it exists. The best public art is usually NOT about individual artist expression, but somehow speaks to the place where it is sited and/or the community that has supported it (more on this later). Most importantly, it is available to ALL to see and experience anytime , from the art educated elite to the common man in the street, whether you want to see it or not. You may encounter it quite unexpectedly, without any foreknowledge that it even existed. You may not necessarily be willing or eager to engage with it, but there it is, right in front of you! Many times it is very publicly sited but is completely ignored by most passers-by. There is no admission fee except the original tax dollars used to pay for it. (How it is selected will be discussed in an upcoming entry). Sometimes it upsets the majority of the public audience and they cry for its removal. Often it becomes accepted into the fabric of the community over time and becomes an icon or symbol for the city or community. In Seattle, the much beloved Hammering Man is such an example. The Statue of Liberty in New York City is another great example. Our show will focus on my opinions, the opinions of artists and art administrators, and the opinions of people we meet in the street, on the best and worst of Public Art in America, starting in my hometown of Seattle, then exploring other Northwest cities and then heading East across America. “You Call That Art?!” Welcome aboard!