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Locality, Regeneration & Divers[c]ities
By Sarah Bennett, John Butler
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2000 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Public Art: Between Public and Private
"What does it mean for space to be public? – the space of a city, building, exhibition, institution or work of art?" asks Rosalyn Deutsch at the start of her essay 'Agoraphobia' (Deutsche, 1996: 269).
For art to be 'public' raises a number of important questions about the definitions and inter-relations of the terms private and public.
The category has historically been employed in a restrictive capacity – to describe sculptural works placed outside the gallery. Here 'art' describes an object and 'public' suggests the terrain into which the object is placed. Public art places 'private' art in 'public' space. Extrapolating this mode of thought, takes us to a far more disturbing position – where the 'art', believed to derive from the 'private' world, the personal interests of the individual artist, is placed into the 'public', where the public indicates a passive and homogenous body of people, rather than a collective group of individuals who actively identify with one another.
So we tend to consider space as inert, as a backdrop for human action to occur in, and as homogenous, as undifferentiated. But this is not the case. Space is dynamic – it is both producing of and produced by people, people of different kinds, who relate to each other in a myriad of ways. Understood as such, as socially produced space, public space can only be considered heterogeneous, patterned with differences of all kinds.
The boundaries drawn around notions of private and public are not neutral or descriptive lines but are contours which denote specific value systems. The terms appear as social and spatial metaphors in geography, anthropology and sociology, as terms of ownership in economics, as political spheres in political philosophy and law. They are culturally constructed and change historically. Public and private, and the difference between them, can mean different things to different people. They can indicate protected isolation or unwelcome containment, intrusion or invitation, exclusion or segregation.
It matters that the terms are used differently and that they mean different things to different people. To indicate spatial forms and architectural layouts, rather than kinds of property ownership, or attitudes towards political liberty and citizenship – types of social relations/activities makes a difference.
Let's turn now and look at some of the ways these terms have been defined. So first ...
Public Space as Non-Private Space: if public is defined by virtue of being with others and of not being the domestic or familial setting, being social but not domestic, then any non-domestic space is public. Spaces of consumption for example are then by definition public even if they are 'privately' owned. In this sense public space is whatever is not private space (private space being defined as the place of the family).
Public Space as Free Space: the place for free debate between two or more controlled realms – between the state and the private realm of the individual. For example, in England, during and following the political reforms of 1688, the removal of politics from a private monarchy to multiple public arenas created sites where citizens could form reasonable and political judgements. The coffee house, for example, provided a forum for particular philosophical circles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and for radical debate and free speech and transfer of information through the public press. In Habermas' view it is the entry of the non-bourgeois class, the mass media and the welfare state, that has eroded the origin of the public sphere – the secure border between the private and public.
Public Space as Democracy: in this case, public space is defined by a certain quality – accessibility. Here, public space relies on democracy and vice versa. But what kind of democracy? Democratic public space is endowed with unified properties, but one of the problems of aiming for an homogenous public is the avoidance of difference. Chantal Mouffe argues instead for radical democracy, one that embraces conflict and passion. For Mouffe, antagonism designates the relationship between a social identity and a constitutive outside that blocks its completion. Core to democracy is the unknowability of the social; this is what generates public space (Mouffe, 1992).
In the western democratic tradition – public stands for all that is good – for democracy/ accessibility/participation/egality versus the private world of ownership/elitism.
For those who support this public realm the absence of public implies lack. Private is only defined as lack of public and is necessarily a bad thing. Privacy is not a right, privilege or prestige, it is a lack, a lack of autonomy. The private implies deprivation, repetitive labouring, dominance and submission.
From a marxist or socialist perspective, the private is connected with a negative viewpoint, with the notion of private property ownership. Private again denoting the absence of public.
Now let's look at the relationship the other way around ...
Private as Privacy: from a liberal rights based perspective, privacy provides positive qualities; autonomy and intimacy, the right to be alone, the right to confidentiality and the safe guarding of individuality.
Privacy as Distance: this too is a good thing. For romantically influenced liberals the conception of privacy is one that asserts the importance of distance as well as closeness of others.
Privacy as a boundary between state and civil society: in liberal doctrine, for John Locke and others, the realisation of liberty requires the sharp separation of state and civil society. Some liberals believe in the creation and policing of a private sphere. This is the space of civil society, free from the pressures of public morality, legal constraint and corporate interest of the coercive state or public realm.
Private as a distinction between the social and the personal: the distinction lies between the social and personal, the importance of individual seclusion, intimacy and individual reflection are stressed in relation to fears of coercive group power within civil society.
For those who support the private realm the absence of private is necessarily a bad thing. Public spaces are seen as potentially threatening, places of dissidence, in need of regulation; whereas privatisation provides an increase in places where individuals are controlled, surveyed, regulated, according to class, ethnicity, sexuality – for their own safety and well-being
In different ways the discussion seems to be about the construction of spaces for social relationships which provide political 'rights', specifically 'freedom'.
The increasing privatisation of public space can signify either increased safety or increased control, this varies according to access to political power and the potential to control space. The relation of public to private differs according to class, gender, ethnicity and sexuality.
We may be critical of the 'privatisation' of public space, the loss of public places and their replacement by a series of private places with associated social and spatial hierarchies, rules governing entry and use. We are also critical of the loss of 'privacy' associated with surveillance.
The ways in which the terms are related makes a difference. The problem here is that the terms 'public' and 'private' are related in a binary way, one is prioritised over the other, one is defined in terms of the other. Either way, the relationship between them is not seen as one between two equal but different categories. To understand the public-private as a static and hierarchical binary pairing rather than as an ongoing redefining dialectical relation indicates something problematic.
Instead can we not, at the same time as asking "what does it mean for space to be public?" equally ask, "what does it mean for a space to be private or privatised?" In this way we can start to see the relationship between the two as dynamic and changing, and constantly open to critique.
Public and Private as Gendered Terms
I want now to consider the public and private as gendered terms because feminism, drawing on deconstruction, allows us to view the relation between public-private differently and not according to binary oppositions.
For feminists the main problem with the terms is that they are inflexibly gendered – public-man and private-woman – and held in a fixed and hierarchical relationship, where public interest overrules private interest.
Feminist critiques focus on the falsity of the ideology of separately defined public and private spheres, and explore ways of describing the gendering of space which go beyond the binary. Just how this is occurs depends on political positioning.
Some feminists are keen to reassert the importance of terms represented negatively in patriarchal ideology, terms such as female, nature, reproduction, suburb or private. This involves a reassessment of the importance of the devalued private sphere of home and family and spaces of intimacy.
Other feminists are interested in focusing on the public sphere and modes of oppression: that the public realm is a man-made environment, lacking places designed for women and children, with serious problems of security, possibilities of rape, and oppression through pornography.
Another strategy is to consider how the valued side of the binary is built upon the suppression of various qualities of the under-valued side.
For a woman to occupy the public sphere has historically often been a problem. To enter the public sphere women have to pass as 'men' or else they are subject to definitions of woman linked solely to their private and sexual status. The ambiguity of the public private-woman is clear in her association with the figure of the transgressive prostitute.
Women's presence in the public sphere has been invisible, ignored or erased. Indeed, for some feminists, the public is itself, defined through the exclusion of women.
A feminist position may involve tracing a positive relation of women with the city, making links between women and patriarchy's positive terms, such as male, culture, production, city or public, looking at the ways women have occupied the public spaces of the city, enjoyed the anonymity of urban life with freedom from the constraints of the roles of wife and mother.
Whilst safety is seen as a key issue for women in public space, security devices also carry traces of surveillance. From a psychoanalytic perspective, the watchful eye may be associated with gendered relations of looking and knowing, with a male gaze and masculine formulations of subjectivity and phallic power.
Between Public and Private
Thinking between is a way of moving beyond the binary of public and private. In deconstruction theory – from revaluing one side, to destabilising the pairing – the third and final move is to consider terms which include both and/or neither. This may be the space between public and private one that includes gaps, overlaps and blurred edges. To consider instead that definitions cannot be static over time or space, that public and private are shifting and mobile boundaries – choreographed through looking and moving, determined by personal/cultural/social/historical conditions.
As the privatisation of public space increasingly occurs in all directions – through global extensification and psychological intensification – as ownership of property (land and people) by multi-nationals rises and evermore sophisticated advertising strategies probe our unconscious desires, it becomes vital that we try to understand what we mean by public and private.
We need to map a new topography of places that exist between the two – spaces of collective action and shared resistance. Places which embody threshold conditions.
The border experience is ambiguous, unsettled and unsettling. The borderline state disturbs us. It is a liminal zone.
Between the 'internal' space of individual subjectivity and the 'external' space of the urban realm are a series of shifting thresholds. It seems that much of the contemporary anxiety about public art today is located precisely on these slippery borders between inside and outside, between private and public.
Public Art: Between Private and Public
To place 'private' art in 'public' urban sites, raises a number of important questions about the definitions, inter-relations and boundaries of the terms private and public.
To place art outside the gallery is potentially threatening, but also means that the role of the artists working in the urban realm is charged.
In public art discourse, 'public' refers to 'site' in its physical state, as it is represented and understood conceptually as a terrain for intervention. A public site might be defined in terms of morphology (outdoors) and/or in terms of activity (outside the art gallery).
However, the so-called 'public' nature of these sites requires closer examination in order to reveal their often rather problematic 'private' status in terms of ownership and accessibility.
For example, public art outside the private institute of the art gallery may still be inside the corporate world of private property and finance, and further still inside the private world of the elite group of artists who get the commissions.
'Art' is most often considered to derive from the 'private' world, the personal interests of the individual artist, whereas 'public' indicates a social group, a number of individuals who identify with one another.
Art itself is often considered a subjective and personal activity, and so the placing of art in public, represents the placing of a private self in a public space – the social space of public art is at once both public and private – 'private' art in a 'public' site.
Artists whose work is concerned with their own private interests, rather than those relating primarily to the social space of the site, (as an architect for example might do), are considered self indulgent and arrogant. On the other hand works which supposedly relate to/grow out of site specific concerns may be criticised as patronising.
Public Art: Between Theory and Practice
Public art affords an uncomfortable relationship with academic research policies. Currently, the highest value is placed on the most private research – on those heavily footnoted articles in missing copies of refereed journals in university library stacks or on the single artists work displayed in the Tate Modern.
Public art rather contradicts this endeavour by valuing instead the outcomes of collaboration with those outside the institution, which exist only fleetingly in city streets.
The place of research into public art highlights the fact that the academic institution also exists in this borderline world between public and private, between the often 'inside' world of theory and the 'outside' world of practice.
Although there is a current fashion for interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity and collaboration, the academic institution has tended to drive a hard line between different disciplines.
I argue that in order to engage with practical problems of public and private space, we must operate at a theoretical level. We must construct what Julia Kristeva has called "a diagonal axis" between theory and practice, "a place between" the two, where a more integrative approach to the making and interpretation of public spaces can begin.
In theoretical terms, critical debates concerning urban space and culture have reformulated the ways in which space is understood. As we have already seen, stemmingfrom gender theory, the shifting boundaries of 'public' and 'private' allow us to consider the thresholds between inner and outer, subject and object, person and social, from cultural geography, the notion of the 'socio-spatial dialectic' suggests an inter-active relation between people and places, allowing us to consider the city as flux and from anthropology, the term 'material culture' refers to the whole world of cultural artefacts from the macro to the micro, allowing us to view art in relation to the everyday.
There are many locations between public and private – they can be spatial, methodological, emotional – concerned with places, processes and people.
Excerpted from Locality, Regeneration & Divers[c]ities by Sarah Bennett, John Butler. Copyright © 2000 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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