Rosalyn Deutsche, PhD, Art History from CUNY, is an art historian and critic who teaches modern and contemporary art at Barnard College and Columbia University. She has written on interdisciplinary topics such as art and urbanism, art and the public sphere, and feminist theories of subjectivity in representation. She teaches courses in modern and contemporary art, feminist theory, and urban theory.
Starting with the story of Friends of Jackson Park, who sought to close out “their” (scare quotes intentional) neighborhood park at the night to the homeless, and thus dispossessing them of their “right to have rights” (Arendt), Deutsche avers that public space shows the cracks in a totalitarian system. It’s where “people declare rights and which, paradoxically, is constituted through the declaration” (51). As such, one cannot discuss art in the public realm without talking also about democracy. The need to do so is all the more pressing since public art often articulates the conservative, status quo objectives of the elite, imbuing major redevelopment projects with legitimacy by virtue of their art-ness.
However, if we infuse the notion of the public sphere into public art, we are no longer limited to thinking just about physical public spaces. We can instead think of public art as “a practice that constitutes a public by engaging people in a political debate” (39). Artists can recoup the public purpose of art by resituating “public” in their practice. They do this by: (1) returning to creating actual art, not the developer’s precious, pseudo public art for privately owned public spaces, and (2) exploring “public, rather than the private nature of meaning and subjectivity” (41) of the 70s and 80s.