A glorious sunset provided the backdrop as we sat high in the Mobimo Tower on the 6 September to debate the motion ‘Public art should be a guest, not a resident’, one of the last events of Art and the City. Paulina Szczesniak opened her defence by comparing art, a part of everyday life, with an invited guest in your home. This metaphorical friend - a cousin from Guatemala - might crash on your sofa and fill your flat with noise and festivity during his short visit. “You stay up late, you cook and you talk with him, so after this week, when he leaves, you’re probably extremely tired, your flat looks like hell, you are probably late with your work. But you’ve had the time of your life, which you’ll always think of and you’ll never forget.” A flatmate, in comparison, is chosen for quietness. You don’t want your flatmate to disrupt your life. “Art should be loud and it should be exciting, and it should move you. So art should be like the cousin from Guatemala and not like your boring flatmate.”
Meret Ernst countered this idea, citing the history of art in public spaces as far back as the Renaissance, proving that public art is not a novel nor short-lived concept. Even if art in public can be temporary, “as a resident public art has a totally different standing in our culture. I think the most effective thing about public art is in fact its durability… we are constantly reminded of the intentions of the artists and of societies that commissioned this public art a long time ago”. If public art were to be only considered a guest, this notion would be lost. Permanence should not scare us, after all nothing lasts forever, but, she said, “this is the most important thing – that we have a society where public art has a place”.
Sabina Lang took a different view. Placing art in public space means, to her, showing it outside the “institutional, protected space” of the gallery. This means its reception is not, cannot be, controlled. “A city is in permanent change and we can’t transform it into a museum. If preservation, which is necessary if an artwork is installed permanently, becomes the only task toward the work of art, then this work of art will not be a resident.” As a guest a work can delight, can annoy, can bring gifts or not, but most of all, it will always provoke a reaction. Thanks to this reaction, the memories of a temporary work will live on even after a work has been removed. “This is one of the qualities of contemporary art, that we can have it around us for a limited time, then share this moment, this experience and this memory. And I think the same thing as Meret – let’s face it, nothing lasts forever. We are all guests, or at least we should behave as if we are guests.”
Susanne Sauter unpicked some of the difficulties inherent in public art, given that, for her, all art is public. She argued against art being a guest, as a guest requires a host, when public art can emerge from other (more grass-rooted) configurations than the traditional form of commissioning or patronage. In response to the comparison of art with the welcome or unwelcome guest on one’s sofa, she suggested that when she has a chance to share her environment with a piece of art, she would like it to stay. “If we give art to a large public it has to be, there have to be interesting pieces that can really stand for a while, that have endurance… It would certainly be a shame if it were just for a short moment. And because it’s addressed to a large public it’s important that people can get used to the piece and work it through in their minds, digest the piece.”
The ensuing debate covered the nature of urban space, who the public is for public art, how art comes into shared spaces and the durability of an idea. Despite their differing arguments, all the participants were very much for life with art in public. At the closing vote on which side argued most convincingly most of the audience abstained, unwilling to pick winners or losers, but the opposition championed by a few votes.
Many thanks to all the participants and to Art and the City for the invitation to participate. To know more about Art + Argument contact aoiferosenmeyer (at) gmail.com. And please remember – the opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of the speakers!