Public art within the politics of urban change

As Published in October 2012 issue of ‘architecture Time Space & People’

We need more urgently than architectural utopias, ingenious traffic disposal systems, or ecological programmes – to comprehend the nature of citizenship, to make a serious imaginative assessment of that special relationship between the self and the city; its unique plasticity, its privacy and freedom (1). Public art is one of the mediums to explore the relation between the self and the city. Public art defines the quality of an urban place/space, but it is not just about aesthetics but also about the social interaction that follows as a result of it. People in an urban area enjoy an immense amount of anonymity, which results in the lack of interaction and involvement. Art brings this much needed social process of engagement and criticism between the self and the city. Public art has formulated itself within the politics of urban change; the uneven and rapid urban development and its impacts and implications on the perception of people; and the potentials for public art.

Examples and conclusions drawn in the paper are specific to the city of Delhi unless otherwise specified.

The paradox of urban change is that, it has brought with it certain phenomenon which could have facilitated public art, but on contrary has taken the city away from it. Urban change has brought in immense opportunity, and urban areas have become a major magnet that pulls people from all spheres. The enormous agglomeration in urban areas has generated anonymity in its citizens. People don’t know each other and hence their acts also don’t mean much to others, promoting an extensive opportunity for vandalism and other similar phenomenon. Public art can relate a place to the self and hence in turn generate a collective memory for a place that can then ‘relate its citizens among themselves’. Thus it could convert the negativity generated due to the change into a positive and desirable urban phenomenon. On the contrary, this anonymity generated vandalism has resulted in formulation of restrictions, which developed as a layer by layer set of rules and bureaucratic procedures, to form a complex invisible barrier for the public art to come. The politics of urban change has resulted in conversion of an opportunity to a constraint. Establishing art installations in a city is not an easy thing due to the long and complex set of permissions that are required; making public art a major area of state patronage, but the way in which it conveys the state’s ideology is seldom overt, concealed in matters of style and the bureaucracies of arts management. (2)

Fig. 1: Permanent art installation near AIIMS

Cities have become synonym for opportunities, and with them there exists a ‘false’ illusion of less time for everyone that resides in a city, which may have resulted due to the common trend of rat-race for betterment in a city. Almost everyone in a city aspires for a better future, and working towards it generates a different life style, which collectively generate a common set of problems that are related to a city. Nearly everyone feels himself to be marginal in a metropolis, and he is inclined to be indifferent to the eccentricities of other people (1). This illusion of less time take the city away from its citizens, people feel less bothered about their own city, the self and the city becomes two distinct entities. This is why the social problems in an urban area are different from that of a rural area. Public art can play a vital role in ‘relating the self back to the city’, and generate a new culture of social engagement. On contrary the illusion of less time has resulted in involvement of people in only personal spheres, which has totally scraped out a political need for any form of public art. The collective demands involve that of better infrastructure, better personal amenities rather than the social and physical needs, to provide opportunities for public art that could be a part of their process to present and procure other collective demands.

Where is public art? Cities present themselves as a diverse mix of cultures and economic grade, which sets a vibrant base for the development of public art, but this, has led to the development of the vast and strong commercial/retail sector, pushing public art to not so public places. In today’s context, public art is synonymous to popular art and explored more in areas like cinema theatres, pubs and malls, while these areas are not purely public. This doesn’t mean that the public art should always be in public places; art doesn’t derive its ‘public-ness’ from where it is located. The idea of the public is a difficult, mutable, and perhaps somewhat atrophied one, but the fact remains that the public dimension is a psychological construct (3). A sculpture in a plaza is not made accessible by its site as such, and any work of art in a public collection might be described as ‘public’, so that the issue becomes not ‘public art’ but ‘the reception of art by public’ (2).

Because public art acts in the public realm , its critique necessarily extends to a series of overlapping issues, such as the diversity of urban publics and cultures, the functions and gendering of public spaces, the operations of power, and the role of professionals of the built environment in relation to non-professional urban dwellers. These issues are as relevant to architecture, urban design and urban planning as to public art, even if art is sometimes seen in popular culture as romantic escapism (2).

Public art installations, whether permanent or temporary are rare scene, particularly in context to Delhi. Usually the permanent art installations act as a form of icon, confining it to visual aspects.  As shown in fig.1, the permanent art has been installed in a traffic island which has made a visual impact. This has been the first cautious effort by Delhi government to impart public art in the city, and weather good or bad as a piece, it has reached the common man’s thinking circle. Discussions on FM radio or the silent gaze that the commuters give from the window of the bus when it passes through the flyover are all signs of the response that this piece is getting; and surely enough over time as many other permanent art installations in the country, this too has gone into the category of visual delight that public art imparts.

A usual trend which can be seen is that the temporary art installations have more social impact than the permanent ones, temporary installations becomes an architecture of event as Tschumi puts it. The very temporal nature of the art itself is enough for public to take interest in it. This was demonstrated in ‘48C’ Delhi’s first public art festival in Dec 2008. General public was very much keen in knowing and trying to get involved in the art installations and one of the main factors were that, they were all temporary; so it was suddenly there one day and before anyone could get used to it, it was gone. Fig.2 illustrates the curiosity generated among the general public with an installation at Connaught Place (CP).

Fig. 2: Temporary art installation at CP as a part of 48C

As the permanent public art installations tends to be a visual experience, similarly the temporary art installations tend to be an emotion generator, while this has been the overall trend, but in no way confines them. Like, beauty of the temporary installation shown in fig. 3 is in the ‘sublime message’ that it projects. It was installed in a dried and unused step well, which was used in olden times for rain water harvesting, and today we forgot the step wells, but are still struggling with the problems of less water and dropping water table etc. Thus art here has been used to highlight a strong social message, which otherwise would not have been so prominent. Similarly fig. 4 is also trying to project the message of the plight of the many trees that have been uprooted from the Barakhamba road. How successfully these messages are read by the general public is unknown, but what is central to the development of a new, more theorized practices of public art is the recognition that there is no ‘general public’ (only a diversity of specific publics), and the redefinition of its location as the public realm, rather than a physical site assumed to grant access to an undefined public (2).

Fig. 3: Temporary installation at Agrasen ki baoli at K G Marg

Thus the selection of site for a public art is very important, the more politically charged the site is, the more public it will be.

Public art is also used as political tool, either as a form of protest or as a tool for political propaganda. The most extreme and widely discussed manifestations of this remain the use of art as propaganda within totalitarian regimes coupled with simultaneous suppression of dissent. The approach to art seen in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China stand as representative (4). Another aspect is the usage of art as a form of protest. Art as a form of protest has been used in street plays since the independence movement in India and more recently it has again gained momentum. This form of protest has also gained interest in the media domain, hence making it a more preferred way of protest. These has also received better public opinions and stay in the memories of the people for a longer time, thus sending the message of protest deep inside.

Fig. 4: Temporary art installation at Barakhamba road.

Public art is not a result of modern thinking, it has been there since ages due to the traditions that we follow. It was a part of the social and religious belief of the public and hence was much closer to their lives. Weather it’s the rangoli in northern India, kolam in Tamil Nadu, pookalam (fig, 5) in Kerala or the many similar ones in different parts of the country are all result of the common tradition. Though these things were not a part of the public domain to be particular, but the very occurrence of it in the semi public areas of a residence has made a great impact on it. Even today people relate to it and hence, a place with such art forms is perceived as a belonging to a specific set of people, thus art is helping relate a place to people.

Fig. 5: Pookalam

Urban areas thrive with diversity, and the public culture needs to acknowledge and respect this diversity, while reaching beyond multiple and sometimes conflicting national, ethnic, gender, race, and class identities to encompass larger common themes, such as the migration experience (2).

Public perception has been one of the main concerns when public art is sought as a social process of engagement and criticism. Art in general is seen as a domain which keeps itself untouched by the society’s interpretation levels. Whose fault this is, is open to endless debate: one can blame the present day artists for taking an unduly private language, or the public for making too little effort to understand them, or the critics and educationalists for failing to reconcile the two groups, or the private or public patrons for refusing to support the artists in the meantime or for backing the wrong ones (5). This gap is very prominent, e g. the installations shown in fig. 4 have been interpreted in a very wrong way; fig. 6 shows the newspaper clipping of how people perceived it. Perception has even refused to identify the installation as a piece of art.

Fig. 6: Missed interpretation (xxx from Gurgaon caught this crane red-handed as it uprooted a tree at a construction site in CP)

Places are significant to people when they have meaning that is readily understood at some level. Places that provide a ‘theatre’ for interaction and tell a story – be it historical, cultural or esoteric – project interest and invite participation. People, when they are included, identify with the place and it gains significance for them. Artworks in public places can be significant in a variety of ways – through physical nature, visual effect, public presence, cultural influence and spiritual significance (6).

The gap between art and public doesn’t mean that there is no possibility for public art which could generate a social connotation. There are signs of public interest all over the city, either in the form of ever existing ear-phones for music or the graffiti which has started popping up all over the city.

Fig. 7: Graffiti under a fly over

Art is used as a major tool for the personalization of a place, which is being widely used by the general public, which is the signs of public interest in art and the possibility of developing a more responsive public art in our cities.

Fig. 8: Sublime signs of public interest

Fig. 9 and 10 are few of the many examples of public interest, similar view can be seen in figure 11 too, where the entire wall has been pained to personalize it. If these signs of interest among the public could be explored and directed in a way for public involvement for the creation of public art then our cities would be more responsive.

Opportunities for public art lie in the public itself, in the public places as a social reaction to the politics of urban change. For the purposes of public art, there are three categories that make a useful reference: public art, art in public places, and public place itself as art form (6), and all these three aspects complement each other. It shall be the role of an architect to coordinate with the artist(s) to develop a link between public art and the public.

Places are significant to people when they have an identity that is understood at some level. Public art assists in presenting and/or creating identity. It can be significant in a variety of ways: through physical nature, visual effect, public presence, cultural influence and spiritual experience (6). Thus public art is a major contributor to the place making process. But to date, the specialist practice called ‘public art’, which includes a diversity of not always compatible approaches to making and sitting art outside conventional art spaces – from the exhibition of sculpture outdoors, to community murals, land art, site-specific art, the design of paving and street furniture and performance as art – has grown in isolation from debates on the future of cities, largely untouched by the theoretical perspectives which enliven other disciplines; as a result it is an impoverished field, with little critical writing through which artists and designers can interrogate their practice (2), which presents a need for constant involvement of experts from a wide range of faculty including artists to work in coordination for urban development.

Urban development is a given strategy for the furtherance of our increasing species and the solution to all our social and economic problems – of that which are categorized as non-urban being placed at the disposal of the urban for leisure and food production, thus denying the value of biodiversity and rural life. A more viable and sustainable strategy may be offered through arts practices that contribute to the understanding of diverse aesthetics and the development of an eco-centric culture. It may, also, offer a ways of mediating and even resolving some of the conflicts between nature and culture. (7)

A major contributor to the public art would be ‘Percent for art policy’, which states to set aside a specific percentage of the budget of the building scheme (usually 0.5% to 2%) for commissioning of art or craft works. Hence every building would be responsible for some public art and this in all would develop a very positive urban space. Over time these art spaces could be linked and could contribute a great deal to the city, thus making public art one of the main components of urban place. Correa has lead a way by collaborating with Howard Hodgking in visual terms in British Council at Delhi, but this phenomenon need to spread its impact more than that in future architecture and urbanization.

The engendering of conviviality may require, also, the space created by an art which simply begins a process of becoming, and perhaps this is the point of departure for artists and craftspeople, their work either integrated into the design of cities, or intervening critically in the determination of what a city is, contributing to a way in which urban dwellers, too, may live lightly on an earth which they value and adorn (2).


1. Raban, Jonathan. Soft City. s.l. : Picador, 1974. ISBN 978-0-330-45649-4.

2. Miles, Malcolm. Art, Space and The City; Public art and urban futures. London : Routledge, 1997. ISBN 0 415 13942 2.

3. ‘Out of Order: The Public Art Machine’. Phillips, Patricia. 4, s.l. : Art Forum, 1988, Vol. 27.

4. Wikipedia. [Online] [Cited: March 11, 2011.]

5. Willet, John. Art in a City. London : Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1967. ISBN 1846310822.

6. Creating Significance through Public Places Art. Worth, Margareth. Vol. Public Art & Urban Design. ISBN 84-475-2767-0.

7. The Kyoto Proposal: eco-art and a form of conflict. Haley, David. Vol. Public Art & Urban Design. ISBN 84-475-2767-0.

8. Opening up Public Art’s Spaces: Art, Regeneration and Audience. Hall, Tim. 2003, Vol. Cultures and Settlements.

9. Public Art and Urban Design: Interdisciplinary and Social perspectives. Remesar, A. Vol. Public Art & Urban Design. ISBN 84-475-2767-0.

10. Public Spheres. Miles, Malcolm. Vol. Public Art & Urban Design. ISBN 84-475-2767-0.

11. Designing Cities – Urban Design and Spatial Political Economy. Cuthbert, Alexander R. Vol. Public Art & Urban Design. ISBN 84-475-2767-0.

12. Public Art Online. [Online] [Cited: May 14, 2011.]


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