Who Is Public Art Really Made For?

Sculpture, despite being the ideal art form around the world in thousands of years of human history, has taken a really bad rap this week. Three major instances of the defamation and destruction of public sculptures have rocked the news cycle within a week of each other, and despite occurring in three separate continents, all hone in on the same, delicate topic: the subjectivity of public art. In other words, who has the final say in art created specifically for public display?

Our first example was a strange occurrence that we reported on last week; the appearance of a bust of NSA-leaker Edward Snowden in the middle of Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. The 100-pound bust was installed atop an existing monument to POW’s of the American Revolutionary War by an anonymous collective of Brooklyn artists, ‘updating’ the monument in the continued honoring of those who ‘sacrifice their safety in the fight against modern day tyranny.’ The bust remained in place for an entire day before the NY Parks and Recreation Department removed it that evening in front of a crowd of protesting citizens.

A statue that was very recently torn down in Cape Town, South Africa however, had been a landmark for nearly a century. A sculpture of business tycoon Cecil Rhodes, located at the University of Cape Town, fell victim to escalating protest from the student body and the public at large. Students began smearing the statue with their own excrement and mobilizing into an activist campaign called ‘Rhodes Must Fall.’ Rhodes was a giant of British imperialism, colonizing both South Africa and modern day Zimbabwe (at the time modestly named ‘Rhodesia’) for the British empire, founding numerous institutions along the way, including the university where his likeness so recently stood. The virility of the student protests forced the university into a corner, and the statue was officially decreed to be removed, much to the delight of the hordes of Cape Town students and citizens outside.

A similar scenario just finished being played out in Ukraine, albeit on a much larger scale. A group of masked civilians went on a rampage around Kharkiv, the nation’s second largest city after the capital, Kiev, violently tearing down statues of Soviet figures placed around the city with cables tied to their vans. The destructions were warranted by the anonymous group in response to the climate of anti-Russian aggression currently tearing the country apart as well as a recent, highly controversial law just passed that prohibited the use of both Nazi and Communist symbols in the public sphere. One sculpture in particular, of Russian revolutionary figure Nikolay Rudnev by sculptor Viktor Volovik, has drawn outcry from the artist’s family. “It was a work of art,” she told art publication AFP, urging the Ukrainian government to preserve the artworks in storage rather than be dismantled at the hands of angry vigilantes.

Though all three circumstances differ from one another in motive, all seem to ignite the common discourse of ownership in publicly installed art, at its core, a debate between the government and its citizens. The Snowden bust and its near immediate removal suggest the rather disturbing authority the government has in choosing what art gets to stay and what gets chiseled down by city officials. One would think that a tasteful, well-crafted sculpture made by the public for the public would be preserved, yet without the proper bureaucratic certification, it will be removed, even against the wishes of the public.

Conversely, the Rhodes sculpture in Cape Town and the Rudnev sculpture in Kharkiv were seen by the public as painful reminders of their autocratic past, shrines that they faced every day to the ideologies of imperialism and communism now considered unethical and immoral. Though both depicted figures are certainly seen as such today, their destruction sparks the age old debate of how one chooses to depict their history. Where some see them as shameful monuments to former oppressors, others see the necessity of remembering the past and owning up to it, no matter how ugly it may be.

Though ownership of public art is a conversation that has barely begun, the case of the Ukrainian sculpture reminds us of one inherent universality to these complications: that at the end of the day, these are all still works of art. Art is designed to make you think, to question your own experience through the visual representation of experience itself. Some are going to have adverse reactions, others positive ones. At the very least, it is worth all parties involved to consider the intended will of the artist, the implications of governmental control, and the opinion of all members of the community before anything is violently torn asunder. Or smeared with poop.

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