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Jacob Art and Public Life statement

“Process as a Public Practice”

Mary Jane Jacob

July 13, 2014


Public art is just as big a deal as it was twenty-some years ago. It was before; it will continue to be. Yet there’s also been a lot of change and, so, I want to speak about how what change we can see among citizens with whom artists seek to work. Agencies may have changed (a bit) or tried to, but the vitality of the field is not there.

Twenty-plus years ago we were dealing with the Culture Wars, fighting battles on the social value of art and the relevance (with jabs at the morality and sanity) of artists.  It was a public issue; public space was a battleground. But today artists are being welcomed, even sought out, by communities and agencies. Why the turn-around?

The negativity of the right wing backfired. Artists responded by showing what they do and could do in society, and since then many more have joined the ranks, working with the public while expressing their own identity as citizens engaged in change with a stake in the future.

But the Culture Wars also led the public to defend art. Many, whether vocal or quietly in everyday circumstances, acknowledged the place of art in their lives. There was an openness, interest, and need on the part of the public, people outside the world of art. They didn’t vote out art, in fact, maybe in the wake of the Culture Wars they rediscovered it.

This meant the terrain of public art was not just an alternative or subcategory. It was where contemporary art was happening.  (For me, it meant leaving museums, those public places that can feel and operate like private clubs.)

A major area of concern for public art today, as I see it, is process. And to do it well, artists need to take the lead—and be listened to—because granting agencies and policy makers that point to “best practices” and the standard practices of other fields are often not the way. They need to learn from what can be found in an invested art process, irrespective of whether the result is art or not.

As I talk with artists who want to work in this way or who are open to incorporating public and social art into their artistic practice, I urge them to return to their core values and ask: why does this direction in art motivate and inspire you? What does it reflect about your own values?  In speaking to students and artists, I advocate a process that is organic (that’s not a “best practices” concept). Process needs to be responsive, beginning with perception and seeing how it grows. Your values need to be the center of that process, not someone else’s theory or sense of how-to, and those values have to guide you as you encounter the community’s or stakeholders’ values. Process is not necessarily to reach consensus. In the process values can grow into an understanding of something shared.

So, for me, artists (and curators) need to ask themselves (and I wish funders would ask; I think communities do ask): what is my interest here? How does it relate to me as a person, whether in or out of that community or situation? How does it touch my values? How can the process find a right starting point? Then how can my consciousness of what’s at stake be furthered by my desire and openness to let the environment and others inform initial perceptions, and in turn, inform a co-consciousness, which will lead us to next steps?

What happens in the process may look like sculpture, be artworks or not, be physical with claims of permanent or ephemeral and event-based with long-lasting effects. But if what happens does not have or accrue a wider meaning, it’s not public and it doesn’t matter.

So process needs to evolve, co-evolve, with others. It doesn’t begin by stating the outcome or even pronouncing what you will do. Rather, just begin in place and time by being present. The artist—and everyone else with a stake—needs to embody the process, live it! And as I’ve experienced, then the everyday opens up electrifyingly, generating a flood of ideas and more.

Some don't trust this organic process; I guess they’ve never invested themselves in it. Perhaps they put little stock in people’s ability to express a deep thoughtfulness, or maybe they don't think what some others care about matters (and here, of course, how we value others in society comes into play). But I come back to a Deweyan truism in my value system: art is a means by which artists give meaning to their lives, and by which we can give meaning to our lives, gaining a sense of connectedness to our individuality and to a larger scheme of things which we might call culture. What I am getting at is that public art processes are a human pursuit, not just an art pursuit.

So while artists, acting with conscious intent, put care into what they do and provoke some reconsideration of the way things are, we all can practice this way of being, if we care and are invested in the making and living of our lives. While art is an artist’s practice, living is a life practice for us all, and socially engaged art practice is a way we practice this together. What we gain in the process is only as good as the growth it enables—but that change happens in a myriad of ways and public art is one.

So the question today for public art is: what do you really care about?