Ask anyone on the street how they define public art and they will inevitably refer to it as a sculpture in a park or on the street. That’s been the definition of public art for quite some time.
In 1991, artist, educator and activist, Suzanne Lacy, proposed the term new genre public art to define work that engages the public but may not in fact end with a sculpture. She first coined the term in a public performance at the San Francisco Museum of Art and later in her book Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. She defined it as art for activism, often created outside the typical art institution, and which the process had the artist engage directly with the public or audience in discussing and creating action around social and political issues. In her own words, new genre public art is “socially engaged, interactive art for diverse audiences with connections to identity politics and social activism.” (1)
Emerging out to the 1990s were these alternative definitions for public art such as contextual art, relational art, participatory art, dialogic art, community-based art, activist art, and the comprehensive new genre public art. Artists began moving from the art institutions into the realm of civic activism. Instead of reflecting social or political issues through metaphors in public art, new genre public art aimed to engage the regular citizen, specifically those from marginalized groups, in creating solutions for these issues.
Examples of this can be seen in the work of Mark Dion and his Chicago Urban Ecology Action Group. Dion, who believes that art and ecology can be fruitful partners in creating solutions for environmental conservation, along with a group of youth from two schools in Chicago, traveled to Belize to learn about the conservation initiatives the country was implementing. They then returned to Chicago and researched the work of different art and ecological initiatives in the area and how the issues of the Belize tropical ecosystem parallel to those of their own environment. This culminated in establishing an experimental field station that would be the site for future art/ecology experiments, guest speakers and future activities. It also acted as the base of operations for weekly community clean-up and restoration projects. (2)
One of Suzanne Lacy’s works, Silver Action, brings women from diverse political and socio-economic backgrounds to discuss the role that women played in political protests of our time. It explored issues that were relevant in British media at the time around aging. Workshops were held with women who participated in the miner’s strikes, disability, ecology and feminist movements. Four hundred women then participated in a five-hour performance split into three tableaux. Each hour one hundred women were seen conversing at small tables. (3)
New genre public art challenges the idea of commissioned public art. Does public art have to be sculptural when in fact the work is for the public? It also challenges the relationship between the viewer to the art piece. Is the relationship the viewer is having withe art the only relationship? And, finally, it challenges the possibility of perspectives. Is the art work suppose to mean only one thing — that which the artist intended it to be. Ultimately, new genre public art aims to engage the public in the creation of an art work that does not necessarily end with a sculptural or typically visual aesthetic and instead engage the public in bringing about change through art.
Knight, Cher Krause (2008). Public Art: theory, practice and populism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-5559-5.
It’s difficult to talk about any sub-genre of social art practice without referring to Joseph Beuys. Beuys was a German mid-century artist who was seen as radical in the contemporary art scene of the time because of his belief that “everybody is an artist.”
For Beuys, the spaces we live in are art; the work we do is art; the conversations we have are art; everything is art and everyone is an artist. In total, we as a whole build part of the "social sculpture".
Beuys created the term "social sculpture" to describe the way art can transform society. Art isn’t merely for institutionalized curated work, but rather, it is everywhere and everyone is making it. We are all constantly shaping society and the environment with our words, actions, thoughts and objects we create. He believed that society as a whole was one great big masterpiece that each person could contribute to individually.
In 1973, Beuys wrote:
"Only on condition of a radical widening of definitions will it be possible for art and activities related to art [to] provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build ‘A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART’… EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST who – from his state of freedom – the position of freedom that he experiences at first-hand – learns to determine the other positions of the TOTAL ART WORK OF THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER."
I’ve been thinking a lot about how artists not only reflect society but also offer up solutions to the problems they refelct. Beuys went as far as taking this belief that everyone is contributing to the social sculpture we live in and forming the “Organization for direct democracy through plebiscite”. Mixing his work as an artist and politician he co-founded this organization out of Düsseldorf in 1971. Today, Johannes Stuttgen continues to spread this idea through the project “Omnibus”.
Read more about Johannes Stuttgen’s Omnibus project here: http://www.omnibus.org/fileadmin/omnibus.org/PDF/Sonstiges/4_Seiter_2008_engl_web.pdf
Beuys once said that “every sphere of human activity, even peeling a potato can be a work of art as long as it is a conscious act.” Every action you make should be in an attempt to better society and contribute to the work of art we call society.
What’s great about Beuys' perspective on art is that it humbles people into seeing that they are an important part of a larger whole, but, each individual has the creativity to contribute what they can to this larger whole.
It’s important to note that initial creativity in humans can be traced back to the Homo erectus phase of humanity, which occurred 1.8 to 0.3 million years ago. Signs of evolutionary cognitive and social abilities began to form such as the building of sophisticated, task specific stone hand axes, seasonal homes, long-distance hunting strategies and the migration out of Africa.
See more on the evolutionary history of humanity’s creativity here: http://computationalcreativity.net/iccc2012/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/203-Gabora.pdf
Beuys died in 1986 famous for his work as a German Fluxus, happenings, performance artist, sculptor, installation artist, graphic aritst, art theorist and pedagogue of art. And although he is not alive today to carry on his beliefs of social sculpture, he is highly regarded as one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century. His work is synonymous with early social art practice and civic engagement. “Everyone is an artist” — a radical thought in the 1950s, and yet, still a radical view point today because it demysetifies our glorification of the art gallery or the theatre. It democratizes art for everyone and sees the useful/meaningful as something creative and for everyone.