Public Sculpture and Public Problems

“The “what is it” question must be answered. And if all we can come up with is “it’s art”, that’s not enough…”

At the end of Senie’s essay “Pet Rock and Bomb Threats: Public Art and Public Perception”, the statement above discusses the need for education to accompany pieces. Art does not mean a single sculpture; public art is often accompanied by the design of space. Public art also incorporates reference or meanings that may not be clear to an audience that is not familiar or educated in art. This art “for the public” can often alienate the same public is tries to court.

The public art can be polarizing; when a new piece is put in or developed, it is often the negative opinions that are voiced the loudest. In the Seine article, the writer mentions a few cases specifically.

“Noguchi’s Landscape of Time and Michael Heizer’s Adjacent, Against, Abop) were, at the time of their installation, related to the … “pet rock” craze [;] … George Sugarman’s Baltimore Federal and Richard Serra’s Tiled Arc were perceived as physically dangerous, likely to inspire bomb throwers and rapists”.

upon seeing these sculptures



It is clear how one might get that impression.



I consider myself a pretty decent citizen but now that I’ve seen these pieces, I’m piecing together dry ice bombs like a bored high school freshman.

Bomb throwing aside, these statements by the public are a quick response to not understanding. When something is new and strange, our initial reaction is often to reject it or be scared of it. At Pratt, we can see this effect, although (most) of us have a reasonable knowledge of art. An example of this is the Newman clock, which is the red clock by the circle benches. When it was set up, most of the student population (myself included) hated it. We bitched, we whined, certain people wrote on it – now, it’s not my favorite sculpture on campus, but the general hubbub over it has died down.
An example of this negative uproar in less recent and less local history is Carpeaux’s La Danse, located on the facade of the Paris Opera. The sculpture was much maligned and famously defaced, ink thrown on it, staining the new work. People felt La Danse was explicit and vulgar; this is similar to the above critiques of Serra and Sugarman.

Public art often does not consider the public; often times, it is the art that is considered more important but still expects “approval and appreciation”. Senie cites Picasso’s Chicago Picasso as an example of this. The writer argues that if something is not understood, it cannot be appreciated. Without understanding, the public sees it as something exclusionary.

However, with Picasso’s big, ol’, famous name, the public accepted Chicago Picasso, even though it was initially derided as “a baboon”.

Serra and Sugarman, well known names to those familiar with the art world, do not have the instant name power as someone like Picasso does.

If you mention Picasso to the average person, they see:



while if you mention Sugarman, they see:


NO i don’t know what they see, but they don’t either. And by not “getting it”, the public is being put down or made to feel inferior.

This trend can also be seen in the reaction to the Vietnam memorial. The memorial is not a traditional figurative monument. This really riled people up, many of whom felt that a memorial was not an object of remembrance without a figurative representation (generalization) of those who are being memorialized. Although the Vietnam memorial instead pays tribute to the individual rather than the generalized group, this lack of figures and tradition led to compromise, and a figurative monument was added to the space.


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