The Social Function Of Public Art, detail, pasted onto empty plinth, Trafalgar Square, London, 2005

Text/poster/photograph, 2005

Curated poster project with Insertspace entitled It’s The Only Life I Know. Also included artists Oliver Ressler and Mark Hutchinson. Located in a display case on the side of the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, the plinth has become a regular venue for projects that declare an interest in public art.

The Social Function Of Public Art, pasted onto empty plinth, Trafalgar Square, London, 2005

“Commemorative monumental sculptures do this by representing the agents of the state (Monarchs, Generals, politicians, war heroes, captains of industry, philanthropists, etc) as worthy of public attention, as the legitimate occupants of raised platforms in town squares, public parks and the like. This is hegemony in action. Lenin praised the bourgeoisie for working this out and ordered all the public statues to be torn down and replaced with monumental sculptures of the heroes of the revolution. This was counter-hegemony in action. In those early years of the Russian revolution, the social function of public art was to represent the working class as the hegemonic class, to foster historic behaviour. The social function of public art under capitalism, however, is to present the bourgeoisie as the universal class (not only with sculptures of its guardians and champions, but also with representations of its liberalism, modernity and technology). It asks us to be like them. In doing so, public art subjects us to the bourgeoisie’s reined-in version of public collective activity. And if you look at the Bloomsbury group, you can see that the bourgeoisie could feel reined-in by it, too. Public spaces have to disciplinary spaces if civic behaviour is to prevail there. There are laws but there are other techniques. In response to the Toxteth riots in 1981, Thatcher’s government invested in a garden festival: in place of poverty and unrest, the decorative suburban retreat of the happy family. A civic code of behaviour is inscribed into public space as a deliberate act of social control. Public art is a technique of preventing riots, too, by addressing its passers-by as good citizens. And ‘good’ here means acquiescent and risk-free rather than flourishing, assertive, together, organised and demanding”
– An extract from Sloganeering by Dave Beech.

Download the full essay (pdf, 60kb)

The posters were displayed and distributed free from places accessible to the public in Birmingham. (For details of the distribution sites see [insertspace] website). In addition the posters have been sent to a number of national and international art organisations with a request for them to be displayed in the most ‘public’ space within the institution/ context. It is through the postal project that we hope to further disseminate the works and engage visitors with the issues raised in the works. Project Arts Centre, Temple Bar, Dublin, Eire and Mill-Workers, Islington Mill, James Street, Manchester, UK engaged with the project.

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