What is the purpose of public art?

Is public art solely to beautify the space it takes up? What does public art have to tell us about our collective history? Art in public spaces should be easily accessible to the community it serves. It should also reflect a portion of our history or culture that is worth sharing.

Kara Walker is an African American artist who has worked from the 1990’s through today on topics of race and racial identity. Some of her most highly publicized work is done in large-scale black and white silhouette wall art. Walker largely relies on existing documents to inform her work, such as slave testimonials and historical novels.  She retells stories of slavery and pre-civil war America through her art, which may look passive at first glance, but as you experience the work close up, you see the intended meaning – of brutal stereotypes, violence and sexually charged images. She uses a projector in her works so that the viewer’s shadow is cast upon the wall alongside the imagery to include the viewer in the story and, subsequently in history.  This is done to show that the viewer, too, is complicit in our collective history. She points out the ways in which our history can be viewed as passive and whitewashed and strives to bring this truth to light.  

One of Walker’s most famous public works is titled, “A Subtlety” or “The Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World”(2014). This was a temporary installation that took place from May 10-July 6, 2014 in an abandoned Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

This sculpture was made solely of sugar – massive in size and towering floors above onlookers. Like the title suggests, the purpose of this exhibit was to pay homage to the slaves and countless human lives that were lost in the name of sugar production. The sphinxlike sculpture had exaggerated features such as large eyes, lips and buttocks. While it was open to viewers for a few hours out of the day, people had a chance to interact with the sculpture in an up-close and personal way.  The temporality of this particular sculpture is striking, as is the physical space the art lived in. In the setting of an abandoned Domino factory, viewers were pushed to question the industry as a whole and the various lives that it negatively influenced.

How does work like that of Kara Walker compare to the work publicly on display behind the Colby College Museum of Art, “Seven Walls” (2002) by Sol LeWitt? Does this large-scale sculpture hold as much weight as that of Walker’s? Though a prolific and talented conceptual artist, I would argue no. LeWitt’s work is not as powerful or moving because it does not call on our shared history or make us think in the way “A Subtlety” does.

In short, the goal of public art should be a strong narrative of shared history as well as an engaging quality that sparks conversation between viewers.  Without this kick-start of conversation, the worth of the art dramatically decreases and might be best left out of a public space to make room for more stimulating, powerful and culturally relevant work.