Since 1969, as well as his ‘free’ sculptures, Auke de Vries has been producing designs for commissioned work destined for public spaces. So far twenty-six such commissions have been realized; three have not yet progressed beyond the design stage. Bearing in mind that it can often take from one to two years to see a design through from preliminary sketch stage to its technically demanding execution, we may take it that Auke de Vries’s involvement with public commissions is an important catalyst for his artistic ideas.
‘Art in public spaces’ has many labels: commissioned art, public art, art-in-architecture, monuments, memorials. Taken literally, they certainly do not mean the same thing, and art is of course always public anyhow. Clarification of the term would appear to be in order.
The adjective ‘public’ refers to an area outside the art institution. Since art inside the museum is public too, the criterion can scarcely be one of principle but rather of degree. The museum public is predisposed. It expects art and nothing but art, and is willing to acknowledge banal utensils as art objects; that is what the principle of the ready-made is based on. Dating from the dawn of the century, the ready-made implied criticism of the museum as an institution remote from everyday life and accessible only to an elite. That criticism drew attention to the institution’s deliberate aloofness. The intention backfired, though. Instead of abolishing the museum, the work of art became increasingly defined by that very institution; the pedestal or gilt frame which had hitherto accredited a work as art now became superfluous.
Since then the work of art has become less recognizable as such when the institutional framework is missing.
To a considerable extent the terms ‘art in public spaces’ and ‘commissioned art’ are used synonymously. Originally all art was commissioned. Our notion of art is however bound up with the idea of the genius who does not wait for commissions but conceives and created on his own initiative. In the case of public art this is usually hampered by legal complications and the high cost of realizing a concept. Things are done as they always have been done: first the client defines the project, and only then does the artist enter the arena. Public commissions are however no longer confined to an elite class of patrons distinguished by a certain level of education and the concomitant codes. By the same token the works are no longer dictated by codes either, but start off as highly personal statements. Actually, these statements are not entirely arbitrary but emerge from the development of an artist’s output. His total oeuvre, in turn, often manifests itself as a particular attitude to the conventions of art history. However, the general public-art public is not party to these frames of reference. Although a public space usually plays a part in defining the works specifically designed for it, and gives the general public at least a clue towards understanding these works (after all, they know the space because they use it every day), an opposite reaction is usually provoked. People are annoyed that a seemingly arbitrary operation has changed their familiar surroundings.