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Art History Professor: Think Before Purging Public Art


In the wake of what turned out to be a deadly protest over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., some citizens and elected officials across the country are pushing to remove public art, such as statues and monuments, that memorialize the Confederacy. The Charlottesville incident [see President’s statement]  and several others have kindled a nationwide debate over memorializing American history.

Michele Bogart
Michele Bogart

Michele Bogart, professor of art history in the College of Arts and Sciences and one of Stony Brook’s experts on public art and urban design, took a moment to offer her own perspective on the issue.

An advocate of preserving such monuments, she recently penned an op-ed for the New York Daily News on the topic, was quoted in a related reports for The Village Voice and amNewYork, and was the subject of a recent feature for Stony Brook’s Happenings.

Bogart recently responded to four key questions about the issue. Her answers offer insight into the controversy over the value and purpose of public art:

What is the purpose of public art, particularly monuments?

Public art is a recent umbrella term for statues, monuments, abstract sculptures, architectural structures, installations and performances created to be displayed outdoors, often in publicly-owned places, but not always. The term really came into use in the late 1960s. It has no single “purpose.”

Circa 1900, what we now call as public art was characterized as statues, monuments and “civic art.” Individuals, groups, and government officials commissioned figurative statues and classically influenced sculptural/architectural monuments. These were intended to assert power and authority of an elite (economic, social, political, racial, ethnic, gender) class of citizens, to celebrate the lives of individuals renowned for great deeds or to represent abstract civic or national ideals (such as “Liberty” or “the Progress of Civilization”) deemed to be desirable and shared by the citizenry.

After the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam War, monuments went up to commemorate the dead. Some war memorials were commissioned long after the wars were over, to express the ideals of national unity for which, sponsors believed, the war was fought.

In the South, some monuments commemorated an ideal of “The Lost Cause,” a myth of an archetypal “Southern” ethos and way of life, bolstered, of course, by slavery. In the 1960s, artists turned away from figurative and allegorical monuments to abstract forms that were more personal, inscrutable, and consciously open-ended in meaning.

How does public art differ from art displayed in galleries and museums in terms of civic responsibility and criticism?

To some extent it has to do with whether we are discussing older monuments or recent art forms. The patronage, process, purpose, forms, scale and meaning of statues and monuments circa 1900 differed considerably from sculpture created for private delectation.

Monuments were intended to commemorate, to articulate shared national visions or human ideals, and — in the case of architectural sculpture, to decorate buildings and say something about their function and purpose. For example, we have allegorical sculptures of the Power of the Law on the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division on Madison Avenue and 25th Street.

Early twentieth century sculptors did not really create art for museums. Few museums acquired work by American sculptors until some decades later. There were few museums and they mostly collected European art.

Columbus statue
The statue of Columbus in New York City’s Columbus Circle is one of many public artworks that have been questioned in the wake of recent controversies.

All sculpture is labor intensive, but public sculpture involves many more individuals, organizations and agencies; it requires collaboration, cooperation and compromise to be completed successfully. And its meanings hinge very much on the surrounding built environment, involving landscape architecture, architecture and geography, among other things.

More recent public art shares more in common with work in museums, as Professor Katy Siegel has argued. Art in the public realm, like that in museums, is sometimes meant to challenge, sometimes to entertain. For certain artists, like Jeff Koons, the two kinds of work appear to be interchangeable in style and purpose, except for scale, which outdoors is usually grander.

Public officials now regard art in the public realm as part of a larger economic development enterprise, just as museums and their art works do; contemporary public art avoids offending. It rarely challenges the status quo, whereas art within a museum context may have somewhat more leeway to do so, if not free reign to offend.

When is it appropriate to remove a piece of public art?

I take what some may see as an extreme position on this matter.

I don’t believe that public art in a city’s permanent collection should be removed except for conservation reasons — that is, unless there is a threat to a work’s physical integrity as a work of art. I see public art as far more than just an inert object or symbol, with single, timeless meanings, or with meanings driven by one sole concern like race or gender injustice.

My work shows the merits of thinking about public art as a process that unfolds over time and that involves negotiation, cooperation, competition and debate among many different people.

Now, of course, we can also look upon public art as the presence of an absence, of which the erasure of African-American lives might serve as an example. As such, public art serves as palpable instruments for discussion and education. The placement of a work in a particular site is part of its significance, and serves as an important part of the educational experience.

But that experience depends upon confronting the work in situ. Moving it is an “easy” way out that in my view, diminishes cultural experience and our understanding of both art and social complexity.

How should citizens who feel offended by pieces of public art engage on the issue?

The first thing would be to learn as much as one can about them. Go look at the works and look at them carefully. Go beyond just the question of who is being commemorated and whether that individual or cause was good or bad from our point of view. Recognize that the values and standards of the past were different from ours, and that in the future, people may well look upon our values and standards as being abhorrent as well.

Think like a historian. Become familiar with the work’s patronage history within the local and national frameworks. Do research on who put it there and why. Analyze carefully how the artist crafted the work in the particular medium it was crafted to look the way it does and communicate the meanings that it does. Explore how its position in the landscape affects how it communicates its message, positive or negative.

Get involved with efforts to develop labels, lectures, videos, art works, or other didactic material that might counter the older, “offensive” histories and fill in the erasures and gaps. Develop lesson plans for K-12 kids to visit the site and use monuments as an instrument for learning about United States, state, and local history, about the ideal of the hero, and about our citizenry, flawed as it may be.

— By Brian Smith

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