A Critical Model for Public Art

Proposing Criteria to Assess its Social Benefits

by Patricia Sanders

When public dollars are spent on art works destined for public venues, controversy is almost sure to follow. With common perceptions that art is a frill, not a necessity, it is no wonder that public art can raise hackles in times of cutback. Especially since issues raised in public art works may bring fissures within our diversified communities to the surface.

Public art becomes so embroiled in controversy that it is difficult to achieve distance and evaluate it by criteria that have validity beyond local politics. Today there are no agreed-upon standards for what constitutes good public art.

In this article, I will propose an evaluative model based on Ellen Dissanayakes bio-evolutionary concept of art which she elaborates in What Is Art For? (1988) and Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (1992). Dissanayake sees art as a characteristic human behavior rather than as a product, and thinks that it must have evolved and persisted because of its adaptive value. Her stress on the behavioristic aspects of art makes her ideas particularly relevant to public art, an art form where human dynamics are especially apparent. Public art today often develops within an active artist-community interchange and, when actualized, it becomes an ever-present part of civic life.

I do not propose to argue the merits of Dissanayakes theory, but to accept it as a working hypothesis from which to extrapolate criteria for evaluating public art. Dissanayake believes that art can offer specific benefits and that it achieves this in certain, identifiable ways. These benefits and means are the foundation for the critical model I offer here.

Her theory, in a nutshell, is that art has adaptive value because it focuses a communitys attention on perennial, vital human concerns (such as cooperation, life transitions, fertility) by a process of making special (i.e. removing us from ordinary, everyday experience). In her books, she discusses various ways that art makes special.

I will test criteria derived from her theory by applying them to a new public art work in San José: Five Skaters by artists Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan, inaugurated in 1996.

This project is located in a section of Guadalupe River Park in downtown San José. Five tall cylinders, clad with mosaic-tile images of five Bay Area Olympic champions, Brian Boitano, Peggy Fleming, Rudy Galindo, Debi Thomas and Kristi Yamaguchi, are situated across the street from the sports arena and draw attention to the remainder of the work. Behind the columns, within a landscaped triangle, is a recessed terrazzo oval platform referencing an ice rink. Thin, graceful lines of metal set into the terrazzo are tracings of skate marks, and paralleling these are winding, inset texts taken from statements made by the five champions. Memorabilia of these skaters float behind round, acrylic windows set into the terrazzo next to the relevant quotes. Behind the rink are three winners circles short enough for children to stand on.
The first test of quality according to my model is whether this work focuses attention on perennial, vital human concerns, either directly or indirectly. At first glance this appears unlikely. The project would seem to have relevance only for figure-skating aficionados.

However, the artists might share Dissanayakes perception of the role of art, for they shifted the original focus of the projectthe commemoration of five Bay Area figure-skating champions to the human values exemplified by these champions. This was not without much heated discussion and compromise, by both the artists and the public. Instead of bronze statues of Olympic champions, the people of San José got an art project that alludes to life issues through the lens of championship skating.

Photos of the champions skating and receiving awards, translated into white, gray and black tiles, capture the joy of performing and the pride in accomplishment. These over-life-size images provide a dramatic pull to the quieter but more thought-provoking platform and winners circles behind.

The quotations set into the terrazzo are especially meaningful for children because the skaters often talk about their beginnings. Kristi Yamaguchi tells how her shyness evaporated when she stepped on to the ice. Peggy Fleming relates how at nine she did not qualify, but instead of being discouraged became more determined to master skating. Debi Thomas says winning was not the ultimate goal, doing her best was. Rudy Galindo speaks of the difficulties of life, of how when his family could not afford for both him and his sister Laura to skate, she gave up skating so he could. Brian Boitano describes the passion he feels when he is skating, how he gets lost in the activity. These statements reveal skating as endowed with those values that make life bearable and joyful. They also bring champions down to a human level, so their achievements become relevant to any of us.

The winners circles behind the rink create a place to vicariously experience the reward that comes from work done well. They can inspire children to excel.

The second criterion extrapolated from Dissanayake is on the choice of appropriate means to make special, to set the art experience apart from our ordinary life, focus our attention on what is communicated and make it memorable. One tactic used by Mandel and Sultan is the element of surprise. The images on the columns are clear from across the street, but up close the multi-valued one-inch tiles scatter and blur, like newspaper photographs seen through a magnifying glass. The oval platform is recessed into a berm and has a single opening, so we enter it as a special space. This prepares us for the quiet frame of mind we need to read the texts and experience the delicate beauty of the traced movements. The winners circles, in contrast, offer a place for fantasy and kinesthetic experience. Another tactic of making special is a degree of ambiguity that allows the visitor to discover his or her own meaning. The elements are presented, but no single message is forced.

Another way of making special I will present as a third criterion: providing sensuous pleasure. The Mandel-Sultan project has the kind of spare elegance that we find in many contemporary art works. The columns, rink and winners circles are simple shapes, asymmetrically balanced and relieved by images, lines and texts. One might question, however, the appropriateness of this aesthetic to an outdoor space, where the elements can mar pristine surfaces. To prepare for this article, I visited the project on a rainy day, when leaves and mud cluttered and dirtied the terrazzo platform. The tile-clad columns, however, looked clear and clean.

A fourth criterion: how effectively does the art work make special by appealing to our cognitive faculties? Dissanayake gives examples of repetition and rhythm which give us a comforting sense of predictability and order, a feeling of control (however elusive) in a complex, often chaotic world. Certainly the skating memorial does this. The five columns establish a dominant beat, while the rink is a perfect oval, with curving lines that are variations on a theme. The simple shapes give clarity to the design, but there are contrasts to sustain interest.

Finally, we can ask, who was involved in the process of realizing the work? For this project, there were many opportunities for public input. The process began in June 1994, when a panel of artists and art professionals, with Peggy Fleming-Jenkins as a representative of the figure-skating community, selected the two artists to develop a design proposal. After this, three public meetings were conducted as part of the research and development phase. As a result of public input, the artists changed their design from a monumental trophy to the installation I have described. In March 1995, the San José Public Art Commission reviewed and approved the final proposal. Subsequent to this the design was reviewed and approved by the Public Art Committee. From Dissanayakes perspective, such procedures are ways of making the art special to the community.

Based on the model I have used, we can declare Five Skaters a success in most respects. It focuses attention, surprisingly, on perennial, vital human concerns, such as overcoming adversity, determination, the pursuit of excellence, the happiness that comes from total involvement and developing skill and pride in achievement. The artists have used many making special tactics, such as surprise, ambiguity and the designation of a special space. For the most part, the work has sensuous appeal. The rhythm, clarity, balance and contrast of the design make the work cognitively appealingly. Finally, the work results from a complex human dynamic that engaged the artists with the community in a way that significantly affected the final design. "

Patricia Sanders is an art history professor. She curates exhibitions and writes about modern art. She is the current president of the South Bay Area Women's Caucus for Art.


Top right image: Michael Mandel and Larry Sultan, Five Skaters. Photo: Mary A. Rubin, Public Art Program, City of San José.

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