Terms like ‘public art’, ‘art-in-architecture’ and ‘commissioned art’ have acquired international notoriety as bad art. This international consensus is not accidental. A good work of art outside the walls of the art institutions is the exception rather than the rule, and the sparse good works rarely elicit a favourable response from the man in the street.
There are a variety of reasons for this. One of the most obvious has already been mentioned. The context of the art institution having become an integral part of the work of art since the ready-made, there is no conventional starting-point in public space. The average public unfamiliar with contemporary art or with the work of the respective artist lacks the essential qualifications for coping with public art. Indifferent or aggressive reactions (‘is that supposed to be art?’) are merely a logical consequence.
The lack of an institutional frame of reference is responsible for a second reason. The different kind of selection process to which commissions are subjected (usually a more or less democratic procedure involving, say, the architect’s proposal, a jury of local bigwigs including local artists) has generated a specific environment in which mediocrity prevails, an environment in which artists without artistic projects of their own confine their efforts to whitewashing the sins of municipal architecture. Their work is rarely encountered in museums.
It is against this backdrop that one might ask whether ‘public art’ is perhaps superfluous. It communicates nothing, it refuses to assume the guise of a memorial but has no other function, it invariably prompts protests and on top of everything it is regularly pilloried by the profession as the acme of bad art and adversely compared with ‘free’ art.
Subliminally this double rejection (by the general public and by expert opinion) reflects a dilemma of modern art that is rooted in the genesis of our western concept of art. The aforementioned effect of institutional criticism of the ready-made and the intrinsic problems of art in public places are indicative of the fateful link between institution and concept. In a definable historical process the art institution has evolved into a consequence of the crystallization of modern society.
The German sociologist Max Weber was the first to recognize the fundamental characteristic that distinguishes modern society from all other societies. In the famous introduction to his essays on religious philosophy he asks himself why outside Europe neither scientific, artistic, national nor economic development steered into the paths of rationalization peculiar to the occident. By rationalization he means the demystification process which in Europe caused a secular culture to emerge from crumbling religious world-views. The concomitant differentiation of specialist spheres in society – politics, jurisdiction, science, economics, culture – should be understood as the institutionalization of calculated, rationally organized administrative action. Art is one of these specialist spheres, a precondition for its liberation from its original ritual-functional context. A concrete example is the medieval retable, transferred from its original cultic context – the church – to the neutral context of the museum. The consequence of the development of an autonomous art institution was thus the functionless, autonomous work of art.
Institutionalization means specialization. A specialized institution, however, is not accessible to just anybody. Modern advanced education in the field of, say, mathematics corresponds with the standard of 17th-century science. It takes years of specialized study to reach today’s standard. Such social isolation would be unacceptable for art, which from its cultic past has preserved a claim to totality as the proclaimer of universally valid truth. Separateness from ordinary life is hard to reconcile with such claims to totality, and artists’ attempts to break out of institutional isolation are as old as our concept of art. A 19th-century example is the ‘tendency towards the Gesamtkunstwerk’ ; at the beginning of the 20th century virtually all avant-garde movements – Dada, Bauhaus, De Stijl, Futurism, Constructivism, Surrealism and so forth – were designed to break out of the institution and intervene in normal daily life. And in the latter half of this century artists have constantly sought a manner of appropriating reality that would be relevant outside the institution – from pop art, performance, video art, all forms of process art, Joseph Beuys’ ‘expanded concept of art’, neo-pop (Koons, Vaisman etc.) and neo-conceptual (Holzer, Kruger etc.) art in the eighties to the latest vogue for politically correct art. Another attempt to break out of the institution is public art.