Sunday, 6 May 2012

Screaming in public spaces...

This last week, one of the four Edvard Munch “The Scream” paintings was up at auction and broke records of price at $119.9M (£74M).  It is an iconic painting and has, in print form, decorated the walls of millions of angst-ridden teens and early 20’s students over many decades.  As a painting it taps into several primeval yearnings or responses to circumstances that most humans will experience at some point in their lives.  In a frame in an art gallery, that view into the sub-conscious mind is almost therapeutic and has a structure to it.  While the painting itself is stark, the environment within which is it usually presented is structured and has a safety to it.

How does it stay upright??

Public art in The Faroes
What if a work of art of that scale of emotional reality were to be exhibited in a public open space?  Obviously if it had a frame, there would be a sense of structure continuing to help guide the mind through the turmoil.  If it were a piece that had no frame, that was one and part of the surroundings, if it were in an isolated place?  What would its role be then?  That sense of safety may well no longer be there.  To enter within an art gallery is an action of choice, even if only to shelter from the rain.  To walk through a public area is an action caused far less by choice and is part of everyday experiences.  It is for this reason that public art in public places seldom runs amok with the emotions in the same way that paintings like The Scream can.  It is not appropriate.

Unexpected moment in Lithanian side street
What is appropriate is a sense of wonder and engagement with the piece.  A sense of questioning.  A sense of beauty, maybe, but that is hard to achieve every time and is not the point.  Public art is commissioned to be part of public places
Interacting with sculpture in Oslo
and there is a real responsibility within that commission for the public places to remain safe places for members of the public to be present.  The scale of the challenge has to be different.  A sense of fun is a positive. 
Captivating imagination - Anish Kapoor in Hyde Park
Also the sense of surprise can be a source of good emotions.  To trigger less beneficial emotions, possibly in people who could be vulnerable to a strong reaction, that is unhealthy for all and is not what public art is about.

Memorial to saved lives in Jersey

The images I show are so much the tip of the iceberg.  Public art has changed enormously in the past 50 years.  There is less of a tendency for it to be a stodgy record of magnificent work done by another and it has become more accessible as a result.  Fashions change, but the human condition changes less. 


  1. Very interesting, awesome and lovely post.

    1. Thank you Terence very much for your kind comment. It is interesting that in the past few days there has been quite a bit about the importance of feeling happy to be in public places for visitors to use them as they are intended to be used.