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Research Question

The main topic of the report is the debate around public art. It aims to discuss basic provisions of public art debate, analyse its historical background, and contemporary public artworks which resulted in the most controversy and debate in society, in order to support the view that, despite the fact that public art was and often is used in order to propagate and manipulate public views, it still reflects the culture of the public and the culture of society. Sometimes contemporary public art is inappropriate and even assaulting. However, oppressing the public art development would only cause the lack of culture.


Conducting the following research, the following research methods has been used: a historical method, qualitative method, and a method of deductive reasoning. The historical method was used when making research on historical part of public art debate. History of public art and the debate around it was analysed and discussed in chronological order. Qualitative research method was used when the perception of public art was analysed. It assisted in getting information as to why there are a lot of debates around public art at the moment. The method of deductive reasoning was used in the research question, where it was proposed that despite the fact that public art is often used to manipulate and propagate public views, it still reflects the culture of the public and the culture of society. The key terms used in the Library Catalogue were “public art debate”, “history of public art”, and “contemporary public art debate”.

Literature Review

Having analysed the problem of debate around public art, one has investigated that there are a lot of interpretations of the public art, as well as public art debate. However, three basic points of public art debate are discussed in the books analysed below.

Crabtree in his book Public Art (1996) states that the term “public art” characterizes any work of art which is designed and situated in the place accessible to the general public. He writes that as the world changes, one can realize that not all pieces of public art should be displayed and shown in public. Personal freedom is giving new artists more space to express their feelings, perception of the world, and culture. However, such artworks are useful only if they do not harm the public. If the artwork somehow violates the rights of innocent citizens as to their religious, racial, or sexual affiliation, the piece of art gains a destructive function. Therefore, he states that some of the public artworks should be forbidden.

Knight in his book Public art: Theory, practice and populism (2011) analyses another reason for public art debate which is more influenced by history of the public art. He thinks that another reason for debate is that public artworks are often used in propaganda or other political aims in order to gain control over people, and manipulate them. Therefore, he also supports the idea that despite the fact that public art is often used in propaganda and manipulation, it still has historical value and represents the culture of society.

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Other authors, such as Harris (2010) and Senie (1998), state that the public art debate cannot be objectively evaluated and discussed. They consider that it should be evaluated according to each case separately. They also state that if artworks contain any assaulting material, they are likely to be rejected by society.


According to Harris (2010), the historical public art debate has started after World War II, however, the first use of public art in propaganda aims occurred much earlier. First Greek cities were main advocates of social and religious art, capable of being appreciated by the Greek community (Miles 2008).

The Greek tradition of public art influenced the Roman art. Roman authorities created the mass-produced statues of their emperors in order to demonstrate the power and majesty of Rome. This concept of propaganda or communal aesthetics was later implemented by Pagans, and the Christian community. The Christians celebrated the end of the “dark ages” period by building the medieval gothic-style cathedrals in France, such as Chartres, Notre Dame de Paris, Reims, and Amiens. Therefore, the monumental buildings were designed to inspire the people with their immense beauty and religious devotion (Miles 2008).

The 17th century was marked in history as the period of Reformation and Counterreformation. On the one hand, this period was influenced by the religious propaganda campaign in order to regain power of the Catholic Church (Miles 2008).

Due to a reduction of Catholic Church’s influence in the 17th and 18th centuries, the public art in Western Europe was immensely confined to the commemoration of Kings, Bishops, and secular heroes (such as Arch de Triomphe in Paris or Nelson’s Column in London). In the 19th century, North American continent public art was represented by the masterpieces in architecture, such as The Statue of Liberty (1886), St Patrick’s Cathedral (1858-1879), etc. (Raven 1989).

Public arts during the 20th and 21st centuries have immensely expanded their functions, media, and form. Political development of different countries widened the public art function for the purpose of propaganda. One of the most evident public art examples used for political purposes was connected to Social Realism art movement. This movement was launched in the USSR by Joseph Stalin in order to support the drive for industrial self-sufficiency in the 1920s. This art was aimed to glorify the Communist regime and its achievements by displaying the monumental sculptures, posters, and paintings (Crabtree 1996).

The other country where the same method of propaganda was used was Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler influenced staging of exhibitions of photos in order to demonize Jews in society, such as an exhibition in Munich, called Degenerate Art. During the 1920s and 1930s in Mexico, painters like David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), Diego Rivera (1886-1957), and Jose Clemente Oronzco (1883-1949) assisted in creating the Mexican Rural Renaissance. It included decorating public buildings by large-scale fresco paintings which contained a political message (Crabtree 1996).

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Forms of public art promoted in China during and after the 1966-1968 Cultural Revolution can also be included in the category of political public art (Raven 1989).

Land Art in the 20th century in exemplified by such monumental artworks as the encirclement of eleven islands of Florida in pink fabric (1935) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude and the Spiral Getty (1970) created by Robert Smithson. As far as public architecture of the 20th century is concerned, the most popular building design was dominated by Skyscraper Architecture (Knight 2011).

The contemporary public art debate started in the second half of the 20th century, when there arose democratic movements in the world. It occurred because the oppressed people finally received their personal freedom, and it could not but influence public art (Kelly 1996).

The erection of the Tilted Arc was the main topic of controversy of the public art in the early 1980s. This is a prime example of the on-going debates over whether public art has to be a work of artist or a collaboration of the artist and the residents. Consequently, in 1989 the arc was dismantled. (Kelly 1996).

Another piece of public art which resulted in the debate was the John Ahearn’s South Bronx Bronzes in the 80s. A white sculptor, Ahearn made castings of city residents and was asked by the Department of Cultural Affairs of New York City to create sculptures for the local police office. Ahearn decided to cast ordinary people as his subjects, in order to embody the character of the community. Nevertheless, his sculptures immediately resulted in a debate in terms of socioeconomics and race. Residents considered that the artist was choosing to depict them as poor hoodlums on purpose, instead of creating inspiring and positive images of the community. Shocked and disturbed by the reaction of citizens, Ahearn decided to take the sculptures down (Frascina 2000). This was an example of public art controversy due to racial differences.

The sculpture depicting Marilyn Monroe in Chicago is considered irrelevant by many citizens. Many people criticize its anti-feminist and lewd connotations. (Harris 2010). This demonstrates that each piece of art should be in harmony with people who live in the area.

Known for his colourful, dreamlike, and interactive works, Agis Maurice was asked to install Dreamspace V in London Park. The day after installation, the artwork left its moorings and consequently killed two people. Agis was inconsolably disturbed, and refused to create such works again (Senie 1998). Consequently, in order to be decently accepted, the piece of art should not harm citizens.

Another situation which resulted in much debate in the public was the one related to the feminist and political art-activist group Guerilla Girls, who were asked to create a billboard for the New York Public Art Fund (the PAF). This billboard was aimed to show that display paintings of naked women resulted in the exclusion of women from art. Girls compared the nude males to nude females on display and saw that generally women served as the models rather than the artists. The PAF rejected the art work because of its provocativeness (Herron 1995). This demonstrates the public art conflict because of sexual provocativeness.

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The research showed that most of the public artworks in human history were created in order to manipulate people, persuade them to follow some political rule or ideology. One cannot but notice that if there were no manipulation and propaganda of Rome as an Empire, Christianity as a religion, and liberty as a key democratic principle, there would be no artworks to tell more about each of the historical periods.

On the one hand, Crabtree (1996) based his research on the use of the public art in communist countries, such as Nazi Germany. Therefore, he gives evidence as to why such forms of public art should be forbidden. He is widely supported by Frascina (2000) who discusses the negative side of some artworks in that some of them humiliate and offence people.

On the other hand, Knight (2011) argues that when rejecting artworks, one is rejecting culture, and there is no development without culture. He describes particularly marvellous pieces of art from history which once were forbidden and considered inappropriate. He states that in order to improve the culture of art, people must improve their own vision of the world and their culture. Democracy is giving public artists more freedom to express themselves, but in their work they can offence some other groups of people. Therefore, there should be a line that the artist must not cross in order for the artwork to be acceptable by society.

Consequently this drives one to a conclusion made by Harris (2010) and Senie (1998) that this debate cannot be objectively solved. Every artwork should be discussed separately and should not include any offensive material in order to be accepted by people.

Nevertheless, Knight (2011) concludes that despite the fact that some artworks are not acceptable today, that does not mean that they would not be acceptable in the future. This is the most crucial point of view, as looking back in history, most of artworks were debatable as to their acceptability by society, but now are considered real masterpieces. Therefore, if anyone conducts research in the future, one would either support this prediction, or refute it. Nevertheless, no one is now able to estimate the real historical value of the contemporary artworks.


Consequently, public art has been widely discussed over the years, as artists argue with local residents and the art world argues with government intervention. Some may criticise the contemporary public art, as it may seem not as sophisticated as it was before in the Renaissance era, etc. However, each era has its own view of art and culture. What is more important, one cannot predict how the contemporary public art will be evaluated in the future. It is evident that the public art is the depiction of culture of each society. Public art characterises society and has resulted in many masterpieces so far.

However, in order for public art to be successful, it should not contain any assaulting material and should be accepted by public. Otherwise, public art can be rejected by public itself.

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