Two Concepts of Public Art

05/15/2015 05:11 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016
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The current issue of Public, the on-line journal of Imagining America, a consortium of universities and cultural organizations dedicated to strengthening the public and democratic roles of arts, humanities, and design, includes a conversation I had with Carlton Turner, head of Alternate ROOTS, a cultural organization, facilitated by Erica Kohl-Arenas, an activist-scholar at New School, "Working the Frontlines of Imagination and Civic Education."

The conversation and debate - Turner and I had different views of the role of art in social change, although we found areas of agreement as the conversation proceeded -- prompted me to think about two different concepts of public art. Public art, including a variety of forms of cultural production such as storytelling, aims to have public impact in the world.

Public art often protests injustice and oppression, seeking to raise public awareness. Pablo Picasso's famous painting Guernica, finished in 1937, is an example. As Wikipedia describes the painting,

"The large mural shows the suffering of people, animals, and buildings wrenched by violence and chaos." Depicting bombing of a Basque village in northern Spain by German and Italian planes, "Guernica was displayed around the world...and believed to have helped bring worldwide attention to the Spanish Civil War."

There is another kind of public art aimed at stimulating collective power, or civic agency. The two kinds are often mixed, but the aim is usually more one than the other.

Public narrative, in the sense of the concept developed by civil rights activist, community and labor union organizer turned Harvard professor Marshall Ganz and used in the Obama campaign in 2008, is a powerful example of public art aimed at developing civic agency. It has since become a resource for change-making around the world.

Narrative, writes Ganz, is the process "through which individuals, communities, and nations make choices, construct identity, and inspire action. It can both instruct and inspire - teaching us not only how we ought to act but motivating us to act." Public narrative is different than an individual story. "Some of us may think our personal stories don't matter," says Ganz. But "if we do public work we have a responsibility to give a public account of ourselves - where we came from, why we do what we do, and where we think we are going." Ganz told me that the telling of the story, and the experiences of being deeply understood and of having an impact, are crucial ingredients. Indeed such energizing interactions are the point.

Public narrative has three parts - "story of self," "story of us," "story of now."

Story of self: Story of self tells of formative experiences which shaped you, "communicating the values that are calling you to act." Story of self is built around one or two key "choice points," moments of large consequence when one faced a challenge of some kind, made a choice based on core values, experienced a consequence, and learned something of importance -- "a moral."

We have found in our work through the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship that one of the most powerful effects of public narrative comes from having young people, especially from difficult circumstances, focus on choices they have made. As Natasha Moore, one of my students who often trains young people in public narrative, wrote in a paper,

"When people have had no control over the negative things that happened to them, it's hard to recognize the power they do forcing people to think about decisions they have made that changed their life, it allows them to see that they do have some control over their circumstances and who they will become."

Story of us: Story of self connects with story of us. There are many "us's" - family, community, college, movement, nation. A story of us tells the lived values of a community, long formed or now forming. It can also help to constitute a community, helping develop distinctive collective identity. Stories of us with depth have founding moments, key choices, challenges faced, defining experiences, lessons learned.

Story of now: Story of now locates the community in challenges of the time. An example was Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech on August 28, 1963. It is important to remember that King combined his energizing message with a fierce protest against the failure of America to make good on the "promissory note" to African Americans.

There was another element: the strategic thought given to how the speech and the march could communicate with and energize broad audiences. The March on Washington, King's public stage, was designed by organizer Bayard Rustin to gain support from Middle Americans, for whom civil rights was not a central concern.

Two biblical stories illustrate the two types of public art. The Moses or Exodus narrative is the struggle against oppression, in which agency is largely located in God and Moses. By way of contrast, as Marie-Louise Ström and I described in an earlier blog, "Wilderness Politics," the Wilderness narrative tells the story of the struggle to build the institutions, governance structures, and rules, norms and habits of a way of life. The wilderness narrative is productive, difficult, and messy. People kept refusing agency and wanting to go back into Egypt. It is also a dramatic example of "the story of us."

Another biblical public art narrative aimed at agency is the Nehemiah story of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. As the people rebuilt the walls they also rebuilt themselves as a people. Within Nehemiah is a struggle against injustice, describing the nobles who were ripping off the people and how an assembly of the people held them to account. But this struggle takes place within a larger story of reconstruction. Both Wilderness and Nehemiah aim to educate and energize.

Recognizing -- "seeing" -- public art that aims to build civic agency can be conceived as a new frontier of interpretive cultural analysis. Seeing and creating such art is also urgently needed in our time, when fatalism is widespread.

Public art which aims at building civic agency can generate hope.