When Art gets out …

Article by Dimitra Gjica

Art is definitely a means of communication, and visual image the strongest and most effective of all.

And in the contemporary world of art where curators, art directors and big museum managers hold influence over the criteria that defines what can be received as innovative art, artists must make greater effort to “communicate” and exhibit their work.

With the first avant-garde movements, the image of the lonely artist – as presented at Courbet’ s painting L Atelier du peintre with the divine Muse as his inspiration and only companion – was swiftly left behind. Instead, public art, happenings, outdoor exhibitions, the use of the ready-made, the rise of interactive artistic projects mark the turn art has made towards audience-awareness and brought to the surface the important impact of the viewer. Even if the curators are those who construct meanings and affect the way in which a piece of art is being apprehended, still the audience remain the final receiver; the other pole of the communication system.

Chaes Oldenburg – one of the most inspiring public-installation artists – used to say that painting and generally art, “which has slept so long in its gold crypts, in its glass graves, (has now been) asked to go for a swim, is given a cigarette, a bottle of beer, its hair rumpled, is given a shove and tripped, is taught to laugh, is given clothes of all kinds, goes for a ride on a bike, goes flying, goes driving at 100 mph”.

Chaes Oldenburg, "Spoonbridge and Cherry, installed 1988
Chaes Oldenburg, “Spoonbridge and Cherry”, installed 1988, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

Indeed, art is fast moving away from the confines of the gallery space.

Streets, squares, parks and every corner of towns and cities can work as hosts for  a piece of art, or even turn themselves into art. In this way, public art can express all the ambivalence of the contemporary art world as it slowly becomes the “major arena in which democratic ideas and aesthetic elitism attempt to come to terms with each other” (1). The artistic interference within the city that occurs with public art, not only transfers art into the public domain and closer to the audience, but also forces it to become part of urban daily life.

However, what can we really define as “public art”?

Can the first mural paintings and mosaics in churches and other worship places be considered public art? And surely all art is on display to the public anyway, because museums and galleries are open to anyone. Indeed, the majority of museums are striving for greater communication with their visitors by introducing educational programmes or interactive exhibitions, with some offering online platforms through which the public are able to access images of artworks. This argument indicates we have to realise public art is not in terms of location, but rather an attempt by artists to change art itself and its influence on the audience.

During the 1960’s public art became a way in which artists could express their opposition to the strict, academic movements of formalism and abstraction. The fact that the audience rarely visited museums or galleries led artists to demonstrate how art and the artistic creation was part of society and its complicated systems – that artists were also part of the crowd. The quest for new forms and systems of art practice was connected with the urge to develop a contemporary, independent art, which would be both scrutable to the audience and critical, an art not to be manipulated or commercialised.

Whether an enormous, surrealistic ice-cream melting on top of a building (Chaes Oldenburg), a gigantic mirror that reflects the cityscape and the viewers (Anish Kapoor), the big Maman (Louise Bourgeois) or even colourful mural paintings and graffiti (Banksy), when art goes out to the streets, it is taking a conscious “polemic position towards the mass culture that denies to be assimilated by the “general process that homogenises the behaviours”. (2)

Banksy "What are you looking at?", 2004
Banksy, “What are you looking at?”, 2004, Marble Arch London

Public art does not just want to represent or picture something, but instead aspires to pose questions, to examine the mechanism of viewing and to put its audience into the practice of thinking.

Public artists address some interesting questions: can a city or public space turn into a “thought factory”? Can art reflect all those social excogitations and fermentations? Well, in this world that is constantly changing, the only thing we can be sure about is that artists will always improve dialogues with their social reality. According to Michel de Certeau “walking makes the city itself an immense social experience.”(3)

It is public art that offers this urban experience a very unique value. 

(1)   Janet Kardon, Introduction to catalogue of “Urban Encounters”, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania 1980.

(2)   Nicolas Bourriaud, Esthétique relationnelle, Les Presses du Réel, 1998.

(3)   Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, Berkeley 1984.


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