Misunderstood Installations: The Importance of Education in Public Art

By: Madeline Walsh
May 26, 2014

Public art is an important part of enriching neighborhoods and communities. These public projects allow an outside voice to interact with specific cities and present a new perspective or push the boundaries of public opinion. However, as with the process of art exhibition in general, there is only showmanship and not education. While Art aims to change perception or inspire new ideas, the effect is often muddled by a lack of information. More often than not, public art is not positively received. This is all thanks to the tradition of exclusivity in exhibitionism, leaving many people protesting public art for reason unrelated to the works’ messages.

Keely Hafter Found Compessions One and Two Covered in Trash Bags  Photo By: Gord Waldner for The Starphoenix
Keely Hafter’s “Found Compressions One and Two” Covered in Black Tarp
Photo By: Gord Waldner for The Starphoenix

Just last month in the Canadian neighborhood of Mayfair, Keeley Haftner’s work “Found Compressions One and Two” found itself bound up in black tarp. The culprit, Luke Coupal finished off his handiwork with a sign that said “Our tax dollars are for keeping garbage OFF the streets.” Perhaps a bit of background information may have helped lessen Coupal’s intolerance of the unusual public sculptures. Haftner’s piece is made of two shrink-wrapped cubes of compressed plastic. While the lack of pleasing aesthetic value is apparent, it is clearly part of the point of Haftner’s work. The compressions were intended to spark a conversation about levels of waste and consumption. Unfortunately, while the piece undoubtedly inspired people into action, it may not have been the direction Haftener had initially envisioned.

Damien Hirst, "The Virgin Mother," 2014 Photo: Monaco Project for the Arts Instagram (@mpamonaco)
Damien Hirst, “The Virgin Mother,” 2014
Photo: Monaco Project for the Arts Instagram (@mpamonaco)

This is not a new trend. Damien Hirst’s “Virgin Mother Sculpture” was covered with a tarp following complaints from neighbors. The sculpture shows a pregnant female figure in the style of a common medical anatomy teaching tool. Half of the female’s form is exposed to reveal her muscular structure, mammary gland, and her unborn child. Hirst’s piece makes profound references to his favorite theme of mortality as well as Edgar Degas’s famous “Little Dancer Girl of Fourteen Years.” Many of the nearby residents have expressed their dislike of the sculpture saying it is “unfit to be erected in a conservation area.” The installation site, may not have been a prime locale for the “Virgin Mother Sculpture,” yet a lack of background information has led to a few misguided inferences. This phenomenon is best captured by New York Magazine’s viewer survey “Pregnant With Meaning,” on the piece.

New York Magazine's Survey on Damien Hirst's "Venus
Pregnant With Meaning: New York Magazine’s Survey of Viewer Reactions to Damien Hirst’s “Virgin Mother Sculpture”

Why is there still an ongoing attack on art? We fear what we don’t understand. Pulitzer-prize winning Chicago reporter Pam Zekman seemed to make herself and the people of her city a prime example of this unfortunate trend of art ignorance. The report even begins by trivializing Chicago’s art celebrity “Cloud Gate,” popularly known as the bean. As shown in the video above, the reporter spends the majority of her airtime harping on the cost of a public piece she clearly does not understand. Art critic Manachem Wecker makes several excellent points on how such irresponsible Journalism only perpetuates the misunderstanding of and misinformation around Art. Wecker puts it best when he described Zeckman’s absurd story transition that reveals truly how little the reporter knows about art.

“To keep things fair and balanced, the story takes the turn: “Still some say you can’t put a price on art.” (Of course prices are always put on art, which makes that a pretty silly transition.)”

Are people of the art world just more tolerant because they have learned to expect and look for meaning in these confrontational details?How can creative pursuits help grow local culture and knowledge if public art projects are continually shot down by indiscriminate dislike? I searched for an hour and could find nothing except Zekman’s irresponsible and highly biased coverage on the piece. It’s title and creator shall be a mystery to us all. Unfortunately, if it was a worthwhile investment, we’ll never know.

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