Public Art for the People, by the People

| 4/21/2010 3:36:10 PM

Public Art ReviewPublic art is one of those tricky things: I tend to still appreciate it, even when it doesn’t hit my aesthetic sweet spot—but I also understand why it’s often contentious. When it comes to art, not everyone can agree on everything, right?

Maybe that’s the wrong attitude: Jon Pounds, executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group, has a nice short soapbox piece in Public Art Review focused on increasing community participation—and even seeking consensus—in public art projects. He argues that “the public art industry” is too much like science: something we all study and engage with as youngsters, but then grow up and largely leave to professionals, with their special lexicons, high-tech equipment, and formal procedures.

What public art should be more like is cooking, Pounds writes: Something “we seldom study . . . as part of early education, but [that] we all appreciate [as] something we need every day, that we enjoy for its sensuality and meaning, that is richly varied in its forms, and that allows nearly everyone to feel the pride of accomplishment in one’s ‘work.’ ”

Here’s how he’d accomplish that ethos with respect to public art:

I believe that each of us—that is, every human being—is more creative than we are typically asked to be in the course of our lives. Ordinary people have skills, capacities, knowledge, and wisdom that they are not asked to bring forward. Just as eating tasty food encourages us to cook, public art should encourage all of us to cook, public art should encourage all of us to be participants in planning and creating public spaces, expressing collective values, and playing with the unknown.

I believe public artists and public art administrators should seek much more public engagement through their shared creative processes. A messy, occasionally discordant process can also result in an extraordinary aesthetic solution. Those solutions arise because ordinary people can know aspects of a place better than anyone else. An inclusive democratic process based on consensus (rather than simply voting) is ultimately good for us all when ordinary people are asked to example social and philosophical contradictions and to visualize aesthetic interruptions of public space.

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