Public art is designed and staged for a broad audience outside of museums. It is often commissioned by government, but can also be funded by private groups and individuals. It is intended to be viewed by the general public, and can be either interactive or ephemeral. Examples of this type of art include projections on buildings, environmental lighting or ephemeral works in natural found materials. Public art can also be integrated into the landscape or architecture, such as murals and sculptures mounted on walls or structures.
Throughout history, the role of public art has been vast and varied. The earliest works were essentially propaganda, used to communicate the qualities and attributes of powerful leaders. For example, the idealized sculptural images of Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar were meant to remind the public of his oratorical powers and pious divine nature.
As societies developed and grew more diverse, the purpose of public art expanded to encompass a wide range of political themes and concerns. Works such as Soviet Socialist Realism, nationalist Mexican murals or Chinese art from the Cultural Revolution were intended to bolster a sense of community and national identity.
In the 20th century, the scope of public art was widened even further as artists sought to engage audiences through performance and interaction. Land art like Siah Armajani’s kinetic sculptural installation Bridge Over Tree was meant to inspire viewers to interact with the urban environment, while projects such as Joseph Beuys’ temporal interventions reawakened ecological consciousness. Artists such as Barbara Kruger and the Guerrilla Girls used protest-style posters to encourage civic action, while Keith Haring’s vibrantly colored murals highlighted urban renewal.
Today, public art is increasingly focused on beauty and pleasure. Efforts to revitalize urban spaces and foster a sense of community are driving the development of many installations that allow people to play, walk, talk and connect with each other. Works such as Sarah Morris’ ceiling-based installation Robert Towne, 2006-07 at Lever House on Park Avenue in New York City captivate the eye through vibrant colors and dazzling patterns, while Anish Kapoor’s massive Cloud Gate, 2004, aka “the bean” at Millennium Park in Chicago, reflects the skyline in a kaleidoscope of shifting shapes and colors.
Ultimately, public art serves as a platform to raise questions about the world around us and invite deeper theoretical contemplation. It is a medium that has been used for thousands of years to communicate a variety of ideas, beliefs and values. Some have been universal, others purely personal or specific to local culture, but all share the goal of encouraging reflection and dialogue.
Whether controversial or not, all public art is a valuable part of our shared human heritage. Nevertheless, the process of creating such works can be complex and contentious. Those who have had the privilege of working on such projects can attest to the power and passion that this kind of art can evoke, both from those who love it and those who hate it.