Public Art Can Be More Than Beautiful
By Matthew Terrell
Public art can do so much more than be beautiful.
In San Francisco, for example, public art tends to be radical and political; imagine a mural educating heroin users on always using clean needles, and calling on the city to provide more social services for drug users.
A short drive up to Asheville reveals a raw, underground public art scene of creatives who are doing it for themselves, building beautiful and grotesque imagery free of limitations of government and corporate support.
In Barcelona, public art is often monumental; each generation of city leaders wants to leave their mark on the future with awe inspiring fountains, churches, sculptures, and art parks.
Atlanta is now—and probably always will be—a business city. We are about growth. Development. The hustle. We are a city always becoming something new. This is reflected in our public art. You see it directly tied to development—Art on the Beltline is a perfect example of this. For some artists, the idea of art being in bed with business interests is anathema to their creative process. But, truthfully, no matter what political-economic system we live in (whether it be capitalism, fascism, communism, etc.) artistic production exists to serve the system of power currently in place.
Let’s face it, we Atlantans are an island of blue bobbing in a sea of red, and our government’s interests are deeply interwoven with big business and real estate development. We are not the place to make radical, liberal art. This is not a city for art to challenge corporate interests, or to question (read: slow down) development. Atlanta artists are working through these limitations quite well, even if traditional routes of government and foundational support may be limited in what is available and what will be supported.
There is certainly no dearth of political artwork in Atlanta. Look no further than the murals of Fabian Williams (@occasionalsuperstar). His murals include portraits of Hosea Williams and James Baldwin, and he has another piece on Edgewood celebrating great works of literature by African Americans. Much of his work reclaims African Americans’ place in cultural dialog, which is a highly political message. Williams, and several other artists, were involved in a lawsuit against the city concerning the approval of murals on private property. The city, for their part, would prefer things to be pretty and celebratory—lest artists offend the sensibilities of the populace. Frankly, I don’t think there’s much of chance Atlanta will be getting San Francisco-style public art calling on the homeless to barbecue the wealthy. Our mode of expression is more like Fabian Williams’s uplifting “Rise Above” mural at the King Memorial MARTA station.
This is not to say there’s no room for radical artwork in Atlanta, but that it needs to be packaged in an appropriate way… and artists may have to do the work without traditional funding. Jessica Caldas produced the work #every107seconds, where for the month of April (sexual assault awareness month), she carried a timer with her that went off every 107 seconds—which is how often a sexual assault happens in the US. She then makes a chalk mark (on the sidewalk, when she’s in public) whenever the timer goes off. Caldas did this work without external funding, but she still wanted it to come to life. Caldas created media engagement, and even spoke to the state legislature about sexual assault. Here is an example of a local artist doing radical, political work in Atlanta in a way that didn’t upset local government or business interests. She showed the possibility of getting a powerful message out through art, even if the support isn’t there at first.
As much as I’d love to see more political art in Atlanta, I don’t think there’s too much room for radicalism in our art scene. I believe the Atlanta audience is one that values aesthetics first, and sometimes the socially-driven West Coast flavor of art doesn’t quite resonate here. Remember the ill-fated Flux Night in Edgewood in 2015? The lesson learned from that night was Atlanta is not the city to do an art installation where viewers get to beat up actors dressed as corporate mascots. Frankly, I preferred seeing stunning light installations at Flux Night more than having my capitalist worldview questioned. This is Atlanta—we’re a corporate city, and we like it like that!
And what about the question of monumental public art? Sure, we have a few bland pieces of large-scale sculpture in front of corporate office buildings. There’s also the questionable taste our local government has in commissioning monumental works. Sol LeWitt’s 54 Columns is probably the worst piece of public art I’ve ever seen, anywhere in the world—only a few art world aficionados understand LeWitt’s insulting portrait of Atlanta, and most viewers think it’s an unfinished building. It’s no Trevi Fountain. Thank Goddess for Marcia Wood Gallery and Midtown Alliance partnering to bring Autoeater to the corner of 10th and Peachtree. This marble sculpture of a car being eaten by an oozing block of marble, created by German aritsts Venske and Spanle, is the best grand sculpture you can currently see in Atlanta.
I hope that our local leaders—in both government and business—will see all the amazing, powerful things that art can do. It can move us. Engage us in a political message. Inspire us to see our city in a new light. Public art can do so much more than be pretty. Our artists in Atlanta show the extent of their creativity in making public art—even if they have to work around serpentine support structures to bring it to life.