Art in Public Space:
Who Asked for It?

Issue no3
June - July 2020
Troebele waters

A project by Lieven de Boeck for the Zuidas in Amsterdam brought Wouter Davidts in contact with the administrative levels involved with public space in the Netherlands and their motives for involving art in those spaces. It was an astonishing experience.

A great fan of art in public space, or what is called ‘art on commission’ in Flanders, is something I will never become. In debates and panel discussions about what is by now a widely institutionalized undertaking, I belong steadfastly to the camp of the sceptics. This is not only because of the fact that I have seldom come across an interesting art project in public space. Primarily, I harbour a fundamental distrust of the premises of art that has been given the mission of adding to the design, furnishing or decoration of public space. Please do not immediately take me wrong: I do not claim that only architects and urban planners should decide on the form and the appearance of public space. Design studios are to be admired when they allow artists, as well as sociologists, historians or economists to pull up a chair at their tables. What concerns me is not the question of whether artists can contribute to the design of public space – of course they can – but the question of what art – as art – has to contribute to ‘designed’ public space, for there is not much art that does that unselfishly.

While the sociological, historical, or economic knowledge and insights that constitute the driving forces behind an urban design are seldom or never explained, the artistic contributions must always be distinguished, set apart. When the art does not do that itself, by means of its material form, then the distinction is made public in a different way, by way of a publication or otherwise that explains that there is something special or something ‘more’ to this street, this city square or this building. But does public space actually ask for such ‘artistic surplus’? Who actually asks for it?


Read on in METROPOLIS M No. 3 / 2010
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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 3 — 2020