Is Public Art Just for Show?

As I walk around Rockefeller Plaza in New York in September, a massive shadow towers over me, I look up and think, "What is this floral half-horse, half-cow sculpture?"

A crowd of people are taking photos and Instagramming the piece from the railing on the opposite side, and some are trying to take selfies with the sculpture from underneath.

I later find out, it is Split-Rocker, Jeff Koon's artwork.

This piece evokes nostalgia and the imaginative playfulness of childhood, with the two irregular profiles joining together to create a "continuously shifting perspective" as the audience moves around the sculpture.

While observing it, I hear general comments like "Woah it looks like a cartoon, what character is it?", "What is this, and what is it for?", "I guess they needed something to fill the area until they put up the tree for Christmas", "This isn't art, it's a waste of space..."

The public has not always received public art positively, even the travel site has a list of the Top 10 Places With Bad Public Art. For example, Chicago locals thought that the artwork "Forever Marilyn," by Seward Johnson, was crude simply because the 26-foot version of the iconic Marilyn Monroe with her dress billowing in the air attracts a certain kind of audience. And finally, Florentijn Hofman's classic masterpiece, the 16.5-meter-high Rubber Duck, has paddled its way around the world and remained afloat in international waterways including Australia, Japan, Brazil and Hong Kong. Attracting tourists, and locals alike, with the hopes of having their presence graced by this gigantic duck. Even many artists struggle with this concept, and have been reluctant to create public artworks. With works like these, it is no wonder that the public has been so skeptical about public art and what defines it.

Even though these works of public art have confused and bemused the public, not all public art is created for show. Organizations such as The Association of Public Art and Creative Time have been working to shatter public art's bad reputation.

The Association for Public Art defines public art as "not an art 'form;' its size can be huge or small, its shape can be abstract or realistic or both, it can be site-specific or stand in contrast to its surroundings." Essentially, public art can "express community values, enhance our environment, transform a landscape, heighten our awareness, or question our assumptions. Placed in public sites, this art is there for everyone."

The president of Creative Time, Ann Pasternak, argues that it serves a monumental role within the art community. Creative Time spearheaded important projects such as Paul Ramirez Jonas "Key to the City," which was simultaneously a citywide public art project that brought the community together by continually bestowing the "key" to New York City to the next person, therefore allowing every New Yorker and visitor to open spaces in all five boroughs. Laurie Jo Reynold's "Tamms Year Ten" closed down the inhuman Tamms "supermax" prison, which promoted indecent practices of death row sentences, and housed inmates in horrendous and tortuous environments. And most significantly, "Tribute in Light," in which the twin majestic blue beams shone into the sky from a roof near the World Trade Centre site, honors the victims of 9/11 and those who continually strive to heal New York City. These projects pushed the boundaries of what people expected, and showed that public art has the power to touch people's lives and enact political change. Through Public Artworks, artists have been able to affect the masses and essentially form of a collective community expression.

Our materialistic world sometimes stereotypes artists as individualistic, egocentric and brooding types who put themselves on a pedestal over "non-creative types", but artists are citizens too! Artists are also citizens who want to fulfill their role in society as creators, and use their power and citizenship to make change happen. They are leading the way in shaping the society we want to see. It is important that artists are given a space to grow and learn outside of the art market, since the art world has become more materialistic.

With public art's interactive nature and transience, questions such as "What defines an artwork and or public art as art? Are these practices even art?" inevitably arise. People who will look at a piece of work, and say that it isn't art should remove this conception.

In the words of Pasternak, "Art is art if the artists say so." Alternatively, the public should be more open to public art -- instead of myopically approaching and examining it, the question should be "Is this good art or bad art?"