Writing Art History Since 2002

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Johannesburg is being transformed by a number of public art initiatives. While these projects may need to satisfy a number of functions shouldn’t the public art at their centre possess value as an art object too? asks Mary Corrigall

Most of the public artworks commissioned by the Sunday Times Centenary Heritage Project would look out of place in an art gallery. Angus Taylor’s sculpture of deceased singer Brenda Fassie would have art critics sneering at its conventionality and lack of conceptual impetus. Similarly artist Steve Maqashela’s so-called modernist interpretation of a sewing machine would also fail to capture the attention of seasoned art aficionados
However, the criterion that applies to art situated in the realm of a gallery space is seldom relevant to public art; public art is rarely appraised from a conceptual or formal point of view. American art historian Patricia Phillips, in her essay Dynamic Exchange; Public Art at This Time (Public Art Review, Fall/Winter 1999), suggests that “criticism of public art has traditionally dwelled on its environment and context”.
From this perspective the well-crafted bronze effigy of Fassie could be deemed a success. Although the diva is shown in reflective repose that seems at odds with her feisty and energetic stage appearances, her relaxed manner — seated on a bar stool, her knee raised — immediately presents her at ease in the public sphere. Aside from the fact that the sculpture is located outside a music venue, her casual stance leaves passers-by with the impression that her likeness ‘belongs’ in the environs. While the sculpture might bring Taylor notoriety, memorialise Fassie and further the objectives of Sunday Times’ brand, does it possess any value as an art object?
Executed with a high degree of naturalism, Taylor’s sculpture also subverts the formal qualities of the stereotypical memorial public statue that tends to be stiff and formal in composition. Yet the work shares little in common with the discourses that inform contemporary South African art production. Phillips insists that art in the public realm is always art. “It is not something that occasionally aspires to and achieves the status of art. The art of the public art cannot be negotiable,” she writes.
How then does one assess the artistic integrity of a public work of art?”Public art functions within an economy of values; in so far as where it is positioned to what purpose in relation to who inhabits the area,” suggests artist Stephen Hobbs, who through the course of his work as director of The Trinity Session has been involved in the conceptualising and managing of public art projects in Johannesburg. Although hesitant to employ the non-descriptive term ‘bad’, Hobbs believes that bad public art fails to address the specifics of the site and the audience for whom it is designed.
“What does its physical form tell us about that environment?” asks Hobbs to determine the efficacy of an artwork created for the public arena. However, he suggests that this yardstick cannot be applied to memorials, where the object dominates or supersedes the site’s importance.
Located near the law courts in downtown Johannesburg, Lewis Levin’s memorial of Duma Nokwe — the first black member of the Johannesburg Bar — might be aptly situated. Yet this two-dimensional monochromatic image, configured to resemble newspaper print, lacks the forceful visual aesthetics necessary to draw attention to the site, thus failing to endow the surrounds with added import. However, in light of the project’s goals, the Duma Nokwe memorial would be considered a triumph.
The Sunday Times Centenary Heritage Project’s objective was twofold. “My brief was to in ‘some way’ mark the spot where some of the significant news events of our century (from 1906) happened while also recognising the remarkable newsmakers who stood at the heart of these actions,” elaborates Charlotte Bauer, director of Heritage Projects, Sunday Times.
In other words the Heritage Project sought to reclaim history, thereby conferring the initiative with a social function. In this context art is being employed as a vehicle to forward the ideological sentiments of the South African nation and not necessarily celebrate art for art’s sake, or enhance the visual literacy of members of the public unfamiliar with art. The newly established Public Art Policy, authored by the City of Johannesburg’s Department of Arts, Culture and Heritage, affirms the role public art is expected to play in the context of our fledgling democracy. According to Eric Itzkin, deputy director of Arts, Culture and Heritage, the thrust of the Policy is, “to support a range of social and cultural needs with emphasis on spreading out not restricting public art to certain areas. We see public art as a tool to raise those areas while reflecting their values and stories and creating opportunities for artists.”
Hobbs proposes that with cultural diversity at the forefront of our consciousness when South Africans occupy public space, it is not too surprising that artists are compelled to create work that expresses the nation’s struggle to establish an identity. “You can’t just put anything up,” says Hobbs, “it must have relevance to cultural conditions in the country.” However, he concedes that there “shouldn’t be a prescription for public art; it negates the potential for ‘out-of-the-box’ creativity. [Artists] should try to capture our imagination while making us feel happy about our sense of unification or diversity.”
Although the social function of public art in South Africa sees artists charged with reflecting and enhancing social values inherent to supposed nation building, the idea that public art is instrumental in forging social cohesiveness in the country implies that art is transformative in nature, which should reaffirm and elevate the visual arts as a practice in the country. Or does conferring art with such a cumbersome burden prevent the subversive nature of art from developing? If art can bring about social change, public art should highlight social ills. Itzkin acknowledges that public art resists a definitive description: “We recognise the difficulty in establishing the nature of public art. I think it is important to keep the definition open-ended. I think new forms of art need to be accommodated. Enhancements to the environment, free standing high technology forms need to be included. We also need to attend to traditional [indigenous] art. The Public Art Policy needs to be inclusive not only of a mix of traditional and modern ideas but materials too.”
Itzkin suggests that landscaped public parks and architecture of exceptional quality all fall under the banner of public art. Despite the apparently flexible parameters that characterise public art, artists wishing to toil in this sphere will find their creativity hampered by the features that exemplify art of this ilk. That public art is tailor-made with a specific public in mind, Phillips infers that critical attention should also be “refocused toward the audience that experiences and defines the work”.
Bauer confirms the vital role that viewers of public art play in engendering meaning. “There was never a question of the Sunday Times ‘imposing’ its will and foisting unwanted memorials on resistant communities,” she said.
Phillips, however, suggests that public art should strive to achieve more than acceptance from the audience it is created for, or fulfilling social functions. Public art does not need to be user-friendly to succeed, she says. Form should not follow function in this instance; it should not be motivated to achieve a predictable outcome.
Fortunately Itzkin believes that while public art will benefit Johannesburg, aiding its gentrification, he recognises that the artworks need to also function as art objects.
“Beautifying the city is important if it makes it more liveable, but public art shouldn’t stop there,” he argues, “it needs to be thought provoking on a number of levels.”

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