The title of the
symposium, for which this text was written, "In the
Place of the Public Sphere," signals a double
reading. In particular, the use of the word "place,"
or rather the place of the word "place," in
the title asserts two different conceptions of the
public sphere. In
one reading the public sphere is a place, a kind of
arena or location defined by spatial boundaries with an inside
that can be occupied.
Public sphere is a somewhere.
A second reading of the title invokes a possible
alternative to, or a replacement for, the public sphere.
"In the place of" suggests that rather
than an inside,
we might imagine an instead
to the public sphere.
The model of the
public sphere that this last formulation implicitly
critiques - a model against which to imagine an instead
- is that of JŁrgen Habermasís by-now classic work on
the subject. Schematically put, in The
Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962)
Habermas locates the emergence of the public sphere
in the clubs, coffeehouses, debating societies, museums,
newspapers, and other institutions of seventeenth- and
eighteenth-century Europe, where members of the rising
bourgeois middle class gathered to discuss various matters
of "public" interest.
Concurrent with the rise of mass urban societies
and the decline of monarchic absolutist rule, Habermasís
bourgeois public sphere is conceived as a social and
political form wherein the participating subjects, having
bracketed out his personal interests and thus able to
engage in objective, disinterested debate, can collectively
function as a kind of a watchdog overseeing the rule
of the government or the authoritarian state.
In this public sphere, a model of modern democratic
processes, all subjects are presumed to be equal and
equally able to participate in rational-critical debate
without being prejudiced by self-interest.
In the past decade
and more, Habermasís thesis on the bourgeois public
sphere has received much criticism for its authorization
of a patriarchal masculine subject as the normative
subject of the public sphere; for its tendency to foreground
idealized abstractions rather than existing political
cultures; and for its lack of acknowledgement of the
contributions of subcultural or counter publics (especially
women) in the construction of the bourgeois public sphere.
Contrary to the Habermasian model, more recent
theories of the public sphere cast it as a site of varying
types of competition and contestation, itself fraught
with social fragmentation, of unequal and exclusive access, of what Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge
describe as "competing communicative practices."
The impact and implication
of such shifts in public sphere discourse for contemporary
art are rather profound.
To counteract the spatialization of the notion
of the public sphere, art historian Frazer Ward, informed
by the writings of Negt and Kluge that emphasize modes
of communication (publicity) over the resulting site
of communication (public sphere), has encouraged a shift
in thinking about the function of art as a form of publicity.
Heeding such encouragement, this essay will review
some paradigmatic public art works over the last thirty-five
years in the United States to reconsider them as different
forms of publicity, that is, as different models of
communicative practices or forms of public address (rather
than genres of art).
This reconsideration will be guided by the wisdom
of Raymond Williams, who outlined in his 1961 essay
"Communications and Community" four modes
of communicative practices that follow a quasi-evolutionary
development - from authoritarian, to paternalistic,
to commercial, to the democratic.
According to Williams,
in an authoritarian
system of communication a ruling group controls the
society of the ruled, and all institutions of communication
are in its control.
It represses and excludes those ideas that threaten
No individual or group is allowed to create its
own communication system.
It is a system in which there is only one way
of seeing the world, with one set of rigid values, and
these are imposed by a few over many.
Williams characterizes this mode of communication
as fundamentally "evil." The paternalistic
mode of communication is "authoritarian with a
Claiming to have a benevolent attitude of giving
guidance, education, and improvement to the ruled, the
ruling group regards its majority of subjects as if
they are children who do not know what is best for them.
The minority that is in power is driven by a
sense of responsibility and duty to do good, to provide
"public service," to the majority that is
seen in some sense as backward and lacking.
Interestingly, the underlying presumption is
that the ruling groupís superiority will eventually
disappear when others "grow up" to be like
Williams notes that this mode is more exposed
and vulnerable than the authoritarian system of communication
but problematic nonetheless in terms of localization
of power and control.
The commercial mode of communication, initially proposed to oppose the
first two modes, fundamentally challenges the rule of
the few over the many.
Fighting against state control (considered monopolistic
whether authoritarian or paternalistic), the commercial
mode relies on the free market as a basis for providing
the necessary freedom for all to publish and read what
they choose. But
while resisting state control, Williams writes, the
commercial mode of communication instates new controls based on the criteria of profitability.
As a result, power over information is still
consolidated and shared among a small number of individuals
or groups who control the majority of the newspapers,
magazines, television, broadcasting (and we should add
today the Internet).
Finally, the decentralized democratic
mode of communication, which is an ideal not yet fully
realized for Williams, opposes both commercialism and
It is a system that maximizes individual participation
and allows independent groups licensed to use publicly
owned means of communication - theaters, broadcast stations,
film studios, newspapers, etc. - to determine what is
is, the modes of expression and communication and the
means of their distribution or dissemination are owned
by the people who use them. And what is produced is decided by those who produce it.
These four categories
of systems of communication or modes of publicity help
to understand the ways in which public art practices
in the United States have developed (or not developed)
in the past four decades.
Moving chronologically, we can first consider
Alexander Calderís La
Grande Vitesse in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the premiere
public sculpture sponsored by the National Endowment
for the Arts and its Art in Public Places Program in
by many to be one of the most successful public art
projects in the twentieth century, at least in North
America, La Grande
Vitesse is a biomorphic, modernist abstraction made
out of steel and painted red.
Located centrally within a large urban plaza
surrounded by International-Style office buildings,
the sculpture asserts its autonomy visually and physically,
and it functions as a testimony to the singular "genius"
of the artist.
This kind of "plop art," which appeared
on many similar plazas throughout the major cities of
the United States during the 1970s, was meant to be
a "gift" of the government - local, state,
or federal - to the public.
With its panels and committees of select experts
deciding the fate of public art commissions, with the
purpose of bringing the "best" accomplishments
in art to a general public, programs like the National
Endowment for the Arts were established upon what Williams
described as the paternalistic model of communication.
The underlying presumption here is that the lives
of the general public, thus far deprived of exposure
to high culture, would benefit from the presence of
great art in the spaces of everyday life, and that the
government, with the aid of art experts, can function
to provide such educational and elevating experiences
to its people.
continue to guide the NEA and other public art agencies
throughout the seventies and eighties.
The Wiesner Building on the MIT campus brought
together Scott Burton, Kenneth Noland, and Richard Fleischer
to collaborate with the architect I.M. Pei in providing
art in the form of a public space.
Foregrounding functionalism over aesthetics,
such artist-architect team efforts integrated art into
environmental design, with artists providing designs
for seating, shading, lighting, etc., as part of a larger
architectural or urban design project.
While essentially remaining paternalistic in
its mode of operation - that artists and architects,
as well as the sponsoring government agency, know best
what is good for the public - such efforts accommodated
corporate interests keen on real estate development,
were recruited, in other words, to provide amenities
that would increase the property value of certain buildings
and zones of gentrification.
As such, in this case, the paternalistic basis
of public art is conflated with a commercial mode of
Richard Serraís Tilted Arc (1981-89) at Federal Plaza in downtown New York was meant
to counter the art-as-public-spaces approach to public
art that accommodated architecture or submitted to it.
As an example of "critical" or "political"
site specificity, the controversial sculpture showed
up the hypocrisy of the "public" plaza as
a cohesive and unified social space by negating the
utilitarian or functionalist mandate for public art
with an obtrusive and "useless" object.
But even as Tilted Arc challenged Federal Plazaís architectural condition as itself
an authoritarian mode of communication (in Williamsís
terms), it nevertheless maintained a paternalistic attitude. During the hearings that ultimately led to the removal of the
sculpture, the "art experts" defending the
artistic merit and political value of artistic freedom,
including the artist, voiced positions that clearly
established their "superior" and refined knowledge
over the uninformed and untrained impressions of the
Which is to say, the paternalistic mode of address
of Tilted Arc
is not too far removed from Calderís La
Grande Vitesse, both as examples of a "high"
achievement in art that is understood as such by a minority
of few and presented to a majority social body presumed
to lack in education and cultural refinement (but will
transform through exposure).
In the 1990s, efforts
to institute a more democratic mode of public art practice
gained greater momentum (the publication of Suzanne
Lacyís anthology Mapping
the Terrain: New Genre Public Art being one evidence
of this trend).
Among numerous art works that can be pointed
to along these lines is John Ahearnís Percent for Art
project from 1992-93 that entailed the installation
of three life-size cast statues of young residents of
the South Bronx neighborhood where they were to be placed.
These figurative sculptures, considered more
accessible to the public than the language of modernist
abstraction (Calder) or post-minimalist art (Serra),
were, according to the artist, "heroic" representations
of his neighbors.
Since Ahearn himself lived in the South Bronx,
and since the art was created in direct interaction,
even collaboration, with the subjects, the "content"
of these public sculptures were imagined to be identical
to the "audience" for them.
Instead of an art that is brought to the public
as a gift from a paternalistic ruling group, Ahearnís
effort was meant to function as art that is of
the people, and to some extent by
the people, that it represents.
While the controversy arising from the presumptions
of who can represent whom led to a quick removal of
the sculptures (the artist chose to remove them), the
debates concerning what constitutes a "democratic"
mode of artistic address remain a potent lesson of Ahearnís
South Bronx Sculpture Park project.
"New genre public
art," as defined by Suzanne Lacy, seeks a "democratic"
model of communication based on participation and collaboration
of audience members in the production of a work of art.
It simultaneously seeks social change, maintaining
a certain instrumental attitude toward art as a means
to facilitate policy changes or to correct social injustices.
While such efforts challenge conventional power
dynamics and hierarchies that sustain the contemporary
art world, more often than not the democratic mode of
communication that new genre public art envisions is
for a unified public sphere.
At the same time, it often maintains a certain
paternalistic attitude toward the "collaborating"
A better example
of an effort to figure or model a democratic mode of
communication in art is Group Materialís DaZiBao
poster project from 1983.
As an unsanctioned "guerilla act,"
it entailed the installation of a series of posters
in Union Square, New York, that represented a range
of different voices and opinions on a diverse set of
political and social issues of the day - from U.S. intervention
in South America, to abortion rights, to the welfare
system, etc. Using
the ephemeral space of the city street and the ephemeral
form of the street poster, Group Material presented
to an unquantifiable audience - passersby - a picture
of themselves as an un-unified public, comprised of
disjunctive conversations and incommensurate points
of view. Here,
the "democratic" public sphere emerges as
a competitive, formless, and inconclusive process.
How satisfied are
we with this model? As many have
said before, the public sphere is always necessarily
an ideal, an idealized construction (fantasy), insofar
as it imagines a possibility and potential of overcoming
social differences to debate issues of common concern.
In the past, this notion of the "common"
was heard as a universalizing tendency asserted by the
dominant ideological regime that obscures not only minority
or marginalized constituencies but maintains and naturalizes
the power structure of this regime.
But, as Frazer Ward has written, "Given
on the one hand the contemporary dominance of mass media,
and on the other, the balkanization of identity politics
and its tendency to degenerate into a field of clashing
particularized claims...a necessarily modified Habermasian
scheme demands attention." Which is to say, in the face of balkanized identity politics
(greater and greater individualization and division
based on a sense of absolute, incommensurate, and non-relational
difference, self-authorization based on psychological,
political, and/or social offense or trauma) and the
homogenizing affects (erasure of difference, or "depth,"
a la Fredric Jameson) wrought by the intensities of
late capitalismís mass mediated spectacle culture -
both leading to either non-communicative impasses (leading
to violence) or numbing of the senses to utter incapacity
- it might be useful not to throw out Habermasís vision
of the bourgeois public sphere so readily.
The fantasy of a public sphere, where one might
bracket, temporarily, oneís private, personal interests
to imagine a collective identification, a different
sort of intimacy - not for affirmation, consensus, or
unification (not a self-same identification) - seems
more important than ever.
Such an effort to imagine a democratic public
sphere anew is necessarily an exercise in abstraction,
and the (art) work to be done seems to be located in
the space of coming together of this different sort
of intimacy and publicity.
[The essay has been
published in: Simon Sheikh (Ed.), In the Place of
the Public Sphere? On the establishment of publics and
counter-publics, Berlin: b_books 2005]