Given the parlous state of the arts in general today, it should come as no surprise to find the specialist discipline of public art mounting a rearguard action to safeguard its existence. When the status of the object, as well as that of the author and the public sphere all change simultaneously, some form of reaction is surely inevitable. The only wonder is that it has been able to postpone its reaction for so long; that experiments in this field during the sixties and seventies could be regarded as unfortunate failures and then ignored for the next 15 years. I find it incredible that we should still be organizing gatherings for a separate little world to reflect on its isolated problems. It does not suggest a very well-developed antenna for shifting reality. Indeed, I see it rather as a civilized form damage limitation. But to hell with the notion of ‘damage’. What we need is not defence but attack and the domain of free thought should not be content with anything less. We need more courage and less fear. What I am calling for is a productive form of self-denial.
Productive self-denial by the artist with a public mission is the subject here. I will not therefore address the problem of the public sphere as such, despite the fact that it is currently undergoing major changes. I shall confine myself here to the disciplinary awareness of the dynamics of the situation in which the arts find themselves. If we really want to think about a new way of practising art, we must begin by looking for ways of opening up current practice. I would like to concentrate on the core of that practice, on how people actually produce art, and on how they might reconsider their procedures. Now that its function as a mirror of society is largely a thing of the past, art must confidently assess the available opportunities and seize them before they are appropriated by other parties. And while it is at it, it should consider whether it would not be better to abandon the notion of parties altogether. For so long as art (or architecture for that matter) sees itself as a ‘party’, there can be question of a generalist and integrated approach, let alone of achieving a level of interdisciplinary cooperation that transcend the age-old division of labour with its respective responsibilities. The responsibility for introducing visual creativity wherever it may be needed is too great for the visual arts discipline alone.
This argument also contains an implicit response to the warning that we should not relinquish our power of judgement (see Chris Dercon elsewhere in this issue). Art can never be made responsible for society’s need for judgement. No pillar of free thought should ever become so deferential that it organizes its media around the need for judgement. Just as no single institution should ever rely on the need for judgement to justify its existence. I agree that a world without judgement would be a jungle. However, this is not a task for visual creativity but for the power of judgement itself. If chaos develops, it is up to the power of judgement – not art – to restore order. Back to the dynamics of artistic practice. What new strategies and attitudes can be discerned?
If you can’t beat them, join them
For a long time, public art functioned as a sort of compensation for urban planning cock-ups. It was expected to furnish identity, stimulation, orientation, and so on. We now know that those expectations were excessive. A mission impossible in fact. And artists were seldom capable of laying the blame on those who really deserved it. They did their best, but all too often they failed. Today we know that one possibility lies in collaborating with the very forces whose shortcomings art was formerly expected to compensate. Use the lack of know-how, use the bureaucratic negligence, use the money for public works, use the development time. Many urban development procedures contain unlooked-for openings, long before there is any question of an official commission for an artwork. These vacuums – if you can discover them – are full of possibilities. And if you are in the happy position of working with a good client, the benefits of collaboration are even greater. This is the way to produce not just individual material elements, but art that is a dimension of the city. A work that is not just an addition to the urban image, but part of urban life itself. This is art as an act of communality, rather than individual expression.
Increase the range of your capacities and the media in which you work
For a long time artists have worked with clearly defined techniques. Even when an artist combined two or more techniques this in turn became a new technique, known as ‘mixed media’. Artists worked in this manner because their work was structured by predictable expectations regarding artistic idiom, vocabulary and formalities.
This then is the mixed media technique of tomorrow: we need artists who are able to manipulate decision-making processes, who know how to manage human resources, who are skilful bargainers and negotiators, whose thinking is relational and not just situational, who can be diplomatic as well as confrontational.
These ambidextrous artists are flexible, alert to any and every opportunity that presents itself. They are not specialized; in fact, they are oblivious to styles. Lack of style is a precondition for sensing unexpected opportunities.
The march through the institutions
To conclude this plea for the emancipation of artistic specialists, I commend peripatetic talent. The idea I am advocating here is that visual creativity should finally throw off the disciplinary straightjacket that has been its lot up to now. This presupposes the capacity to develop artistic trajectories that cut right across these and any other restrictions. It is no longer a matter of recognizing a particular discipline, name or institution, but of developing trajectories that are recognizable and effective. Today’s burning issue is how to define and follow these multiple trajectories without abandoning art as a vital creative dimension of our time.
Before we can enter this next stage in the history of public art – visual creativity rather than production – a few seemingly unassailable conceptual barriers have still to be demolished.
The belief in unique authorship. I believe that a new attitude will produce a new stance vis à vis the individual work, vis à vis individualism as a whole. If the conception and creation of spatial and visual configurations in the city become increasingly complex, it is absurd to imagine that art will be able to avoid the fundamental issue of the waning position of the individual intervention. I am talking about the need for teamwork. Not as a pretext for grey nothingness, but as a basic principle of shared creativity. Art can be the art of organization, in which multiple talents and creativity are used for an artistic purpose.
The value of the visual aspect of art. If a work is entangled in a much more complex network of values, interests and collective interventions, it may lose its power as a strong, isolated and impressive image. This loss might easily be mistaken for an enfeeblement of art. Some people even see the quest for greater freedom and room to manoeuvre as a sort of Faustian pact that is bound to end in a loss of spiritual strength for art. I think that the important issue is to achieve creative visual effects by other means than the single image. In addition to the benefits of new procedures, a visual strength must be found that remains recognizable across all the domains. I look forward to further theorizing and inescapable [irrefutable?] examples.
The identity and self-image of the artist. Giving this up is perhaps the most difficult of all, for it has to do with mentality. It will be incredibly difficult for the artist to give up his traditional position for something he cannot yet conceive. But sometimes the pursuit of self-confirmation must be temporarily postponed in order to generate new values. At first sight becoming a member of a larger creative team may seem to be a retrograde move; but if we can develop a rhetoric in which the object is not things but behavioural effects, we may also discover new ways of commanding respect. The artists I am talking about do not strive for a personal judgement, but a contemporary form of grace.