The city as a whole is still grappling with the meaning and role of public art. | Photos by Molly Wallace
A city cannot help but have public art. If city-planning bureaucracies failed, we would still have graffiti. If the police cracked down on vandalism, eccentrics would still fill their yards with gnomes. Even when public expression is punished, regimes still have propaganda that at least purports to be art. A public body can't help but express itself, and we can't help but view others' expression when it's in public.
The problems and opportunities of public art got a public airing in a talk The Capital Times organized on February 21 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The panel discussion, moderated by Cap Times arts journalist Lindsay Christians, featured artist-activist Kelly Parks Snider, Dane Arts' Mark Fraire, City of Madison arts administrator Karin Wolf, and UW-Madison art professor Faisal Abdu'Allah.
The panelists couldn't agree on an answer for the initial question: "What is public art?" Fraire offered a definition that involved maximum accessibility, but a general theme consensus emerged that "public" was synonymous with taxpayer funding— though none of the panelists actually put it in those terms. The one outlier was when an audience member spoke up to suggest that local businesses use whatever artists they want.
The words "public" and "art" are notoriously tricky to pin down even on their own, so maybe it should be expected that four different professionals wouldn't establish that common ground on what they mean when combined. Practices I would consider public art, like graffiti, were not discussed, and neither was religious art (a department in which Madison is slaying it lately). Legally, graffiti (or other artwork done without permission) is not art, which is probably part of the reason vandalism wasn't discussed at all, even though good graffiti tags fulfill the definitions of "public," thanks to their inherent accessibility, and "art," given their symbolism and craft.
The first major disagreement the panelists had was whether to prioritize local artists over the best artists Madison could theoretically attract from out of town. Wolf argued that her committee does a good job of both supporting the local community and attracting the world's best, while Abdu'Allah, who pointed out that he wasn't born here, insisted that he doesn't care where the art comes from, because Madison deserves "the best visual experience possible."
Abdu'Allah again pushed for a focus on the aesthetic value of public work itself when he advised local artists to focus on their craft instead of marketing themselves to the city. Wolf's response, again, took a middle ground.
"I've seen great artists that are very focused on their craft not get gigs because they so lack the business skills, and I've seen really good marketers that get away with a lot," Wolf said.
This drew a nervous laugh from the crowd, because this paradox is well understood. The best creators sometimes can't promote themselves because they're good at art, not marketing. Meanwhile, city administrators want the best art, but they need to work with someone responsible, and signaling this responsibility while becoming know to city administrators in the first place is a job in itself. To drive the point home, Snider said later in the talk that she has someone else write grant applications for her.
Another moment of tension arrived when the panelists discussed Bucky on Parade, a program that will commission 80 6-foot tall Bucky Badgers, all painted by different artists.
At the mention of this program, a woman behind me said, "They're going to call that art?"
Abdu'Allah responded, "I think these large things are going to be eyesores. If there was consultation with artists I think these things would look differently."
These disagreements were the most enlightening moments of the talk, as the public had the chance to watch artistic philosophies bounce off of the reality of bureaucracies.
Abdu'Allah brought up a vital point that was danced around for the remainder of the talk.
"I'm curious about the idea of the word 'community,'" He said. "I work with groups that don't feel a part of the community, or the visual experience."
The resounding answer from the other panelists was that responsibility lays on individuals to make themselves known to the city.
To the credit of Karin Wolf and Mark Fraire, there are indeed relatively diverse channels for taxpayer-funded work to go through before it meets the people. The Madison Arts Commision and Dane Arts both have multiple opportunities, from a mural program to the temporary BLINK installation series. MAC also helps with public-private partnerships like the "permission wall" at Mother Fool's on Willy Street, which changes every few months with a different mural by a different artist.
Arts administrators also must answer questions that consume academics: What constitutes good art? What should art do? Do people like Andy Warhol? In addition, they also must guard the public from anything overtly offensive. As Fraire pointed out at the talk, someone is going to be upset by a piece of public art, and that's half the point anyway, but we also have children walking around who aren't ready to have their minds blown. There must be some threshold on work that a majority of citizens don't like, but the history of art tells us that the public's tastes change. These are the spinning plates of city officials making art decisions.
But what about art that's in public that's not funded by the city, state, or federal government? If we think of public art as art that lives outside in the city, then you're never more than a block away from some visual experience.
There are local businesses that I argue take their logos beyond advertising, like Rocky Rococo's objectively stunning bus advertisements, or Community Pharmacy's flowery sign. Private citizens can and do house creative objects on their property, and individuals with spray paint, markers or stickers make their presence known throughout the city without anyone's permission.
While huge metal birds (courtesy of the legendary Dr. Evermor) and Matisse-esque trees (in a mural overlooking Lisa Link Peace Park on State Street) indeed make the city more livable, you wouldn't necessarily say they're provocative. When art in Madison is political, it usually takes a stance of what I'll call radical love. This aesthetic confronts the horrible parts of being a human with community, friendship, siblinghood, and cooperation. What could be a better aesthetic for a public space, then?
There is the Social Justice Center's memorial to Tony Robinson on Willy Street, which is one of the few politically provocative artistic pieces I found attached to an institution. The memorial is a collection of various objects that come together to make a chaotically beautiful whole, that serves as an index of the gap left in the world by the tragic shooting. While the piece doesn't deliver an overt messages about the police state, it makes clear that the Madison police officer who shot Robinson committed a grave injustice.
This relative lack of political messaging sponsored by the city and prominent business owners means that the creative voices stifled by the neutrality of the impartial arts administrators must find different avenues. For this reason, graffiti is both threatening and vital to the city.
Graffiti short-circuits democratic expectations, and gets right to the expression, inherently giving voice to those silenced by a moderate public. Graffiti is supposed to be impermanent, but that's what makes it the perfect medium to capture specific moments in time that melt away.
Graffiti has also inspired the most vehement public-art related debates in Madison in the last few years. Consider the anti-racist spray-paintings that got a UW-Madison student hauled out of class by police, or the complaints of local artists that Madison in general doesn't really embrace street art. Consider that the bigoted vandalism of a monument near the Gates of Heaven synagogue is also, in the minds of the law and most media outlets, graffiti in almost the exact same way as tags with artistic depth and/or messages that speak out for the vulnerable. Though expressing wildly different messages with a vast difference in artistic depth, both are erased by the body politic. The messages are scrubbed away, and, theoretically, the perpetrator is punished, as was the case with King Shabazz's poetry, but which was apparently not possible with the anonymous cowardice of a swastika.
It's difficult to ignore that these public confrontations of visual expression take hard stances on white supremacy. Permanent institutional art that is housed outside does not yet seem to have the freedom to take a hard stance against the disgusting publicizing of white nationalism, except in the form of an all-encompassing expression of love that cannot name its own enemies.
While out in the city recently, walking in search of art I could stumble upon naturally, I found a man painting over a tag I'd seen all around Willy Street. He worked slowly with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, brushing away someone's name from a solid red wall.
"I just finished painting this last month," he said, gesturing to the two-story solid wall of red brick. "Now my boss has to pay me to paint it again."
While the community debates how we use our tax dollars to express our values, the battle for temporary yet meaningful expression between graffiti artists, graffiti abusers, and the workers cleaning it up carries on. Madisonians may take pride in the city's visual experience, but there is work to be done.