Malcolm Miles, PhD, Architecture from Oxford Brookes University, is Professor at Plymouth University’s School of Architecture, Design and Environment. He chairs the Culture-Theory-Space research group and researches the intersection of critical theory, contemporary visual culture, and urbanism.
Miles here aims to undo the nostalgic view of public art, particularly transhistorical modern art, which, rejecting context, helps to “project a compensatory fantasy of the present which abolishes conflict” (88), including — especially — those of race, gender, and class. Genuine public art should reflect that there are numerous discrete publics, and that the public realm evokes more than urban sites.
“The reconfiguration of a city introduces, in treating its existing fabric as a contourless ground on which to inscribe a new design, the possibility of a radical break with history…. perhaps the urge for a new city derives from a desire to purge the unclean, abolishing the mess and complexities of the past” (23).
He levels, following Zukin (1995) and Deutsche (1991), an attack against using art for redevelopment purposes, particularly the prosperous 80s. The essential question, linking art, urban policy, and the predictable gentrification is, Who controls the process? Miles holds that Percent for Art projects ignore the difference between “urban development” and “urban regeneration.” The latter evokes something more sustainable and strives for social justice. The former, by contrast, too often means capitulating to developer interests. Saskia Sassen (1996) worries about cultural districts/centers because reflect middle-class interests and flatten difference. Yet, per Sassen, “A large city is a space of difference” (as cited on 118). Again, whose public art is this? Who’s in control? Because even though they’re agents of gentrification, it’s rarely the artists who feel empowered on their way out.
“Developers do not develop in order to construct the ‘city beautiful,’ they construct the city beautiful in order to conceal the incompatibility of their development with a free society” (130).
For Miles, “art” and “public” didn’t jibe in the 19th century and they still don’t today, and he contends the art-and-architecture trope is a framework for conventional, male-dominated public art. A sculpture in a plaza isn’t necessarily any more approachable than hallowed museum galleries. Per museum director Kathy Halbreich (1984), “Public art should not be restricted to artworks placed in public plazas but should encompass relationships and dialogues between artists and the public” (as cited on 94). But, per feminist art historian Arlene Raven (1989), “the new public-spirited art can…critique…the uneasy relationship among artworks, the public domain, and the public” (as cited on 100). (Thus, harking Helguera (2011), the community member’s input is key.)
Finally, Miles quotes Suzanne Lacy’s (1995) Mapping the Terrain proposal for new, socially active modes of art practice.
“An alternative history of today’s public art could read through the development of various vanguard groups, such as feminist, ethnic, Marxist, and media artists and other activities. They have a common interest in leftist politics, social activism, redefined audiences, relevance for communities (particularly marginalized ones), and collaborative methodology” (as cited on 101).