Sauk Valley Community College

Humanities 210

Lecture Note Six


Kandinsky's Blue










(A topiary version of Seurat's Sunday Afternoon )

Public Art

Many folk have nicely landscaped lawns, either because they hire it done or they do it themselves. This practice has a long tradition, a tradition which includes the beautiful gardens found around European palaces and estates as well as the more simple English garden. In some form or another, landscaping  extends all the way back to the Greeks. But an offshoot of this practice, known as Landscape Art, was started here in the United States in the middle 1800's. (We already briefly mentioned Landscape Art in our discussion of Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of Grande Jatte . )Not only is this a way for individuals to express their creativity but it is also one of the forms which can be used for Public Art.

Often amongst the landscaping of public parks we also find statues, murals, or monuments. We also see this type of art in front of public buildings or as a focal point for plazas and other open spaces. And occasionally we have a chance to experience large natural edifices turned into sculpture such as Mount Rushmore. Or, if very lucky, we get to visit historical sites such as the Parthenon or the Acropolis in Greece, sites which demonstrate the "artfulness" of architecture.

What all these examples have in common is that they are public--that is, they are, for the most part, readily accessible to the public and often were created to honor or memorialize some public event or figure. Even landscaping can be dedicated to the memory of a citizen to honor public service. In fact, historically, art was almost always "public art." The idea of creating highly personal representations of a subject or of creating something for a particular individual really didn't come into fashion until the Renaissance. But because of our shift in thinking about who does art and why, we often pay very little attention to the public art around us.

There are many folk who, in recent years, have become concerned about this over- personalization of art. That is, they understand the importance of public art, as we will discuss below. They also understand that the highly personal nature of modern art is one of the reasons that the general public has turned away from art. It is very easy to be turned off after looking at something which makes no sense to the viewer without lots of information and hours of study. For example--

Topiary of Sunday Afternoon










This painting by Jackson Pollock is one of the masterpieces of modern art. It's title is Blue (Moby Dick).  Certainly the painting can be enjoyed for its colors and shapes and the overall composition. And the title gives us some hint of what this painting is about, that is, what it might mean. But to really understand the painting, one needs to study Pollock's work and learn something about the painter himself.  However, even then we're never sure that we "get" it the way we did with Seurat or Holbien--or the painting you chose for the midterm. So we end up bringing more of ourselves to the painting than it does to us and we create our own private understandings. This, of course,  is one of the intentions of modern art, to leave more room for the viewer to bring his or her own self to the creation of the work and personalize the meaning. And many people enjoy being allowed to do this. 

But compare this to Seurat's Grande Jatte. We "get" the painting, at least on the surface, the first time we look at it. This allows the information we gather about the painting and about Seurat to be placed on top of the fact that it is a scene of people in a park. Although we personalize our understanding of the work to some degree, there is less room for making the painting mean something that only makes sense to us personally.

These two paintings are examples of the shift in attitude towards art, both by artists and by the audience. While no one would want modern art to go away, many people regret the loss of the kind of art that speaks to us as a community, as a public, as well as the loss of the ability to appreciate the art which does serve that purpose (check back to the purposes art can serve as discussed in Unit One).

Although the discussion above has relied mostly on the visual arts for examples, the same sort of trend can be found in all the arts--music, literature, dance, theater, film, and so on. But it has been in the visual arts that the move to resurrect public art has been most strong. Below, we will visit several sites that talk about public art in its various forms.

Landscape Art and Installations

To begin with we will look at Public Art through the eyes of fellow students. To get the conversation started we will visit the website of a HUM 210 group who did their project on Landscape Art. Then we will visit a site which explains "What HUM 210 did for their summer vacation."

Landscape Art--HUM 210 group project

How HUM 210 Spent Their Summer Vacation
(This site includes the Reading for Unit Six. Also, make
sure you visit the Sculpture Chicago link found there.)


For hundreds of years, architecture has also been considered public art. It has only been with the advent of prefab construction and the concept of functionality that we have lost the sense that architecture can be both a personal and public artistic statement. The links below will take you to sites about architecture and architects.

Chicago Architecture Foundation

Frederick Law Olmsted NHS Home Page


World's Fairs

Another example of public art is World's Fairs. Unfortunately, cost has brought the practice of putting on World's Fairs pretty much to a halt. But historically, the world's fair as a concept not only created monumental public displays of the culture for which they were made, but also gave us things such as the Eiffel Tower, ferris wheels, pretzels, and ---Disneyland!!!  And the most perfect example of an American world's fair is the biggest and most lavish world's fair ever, the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition.

Public art, as with all the arts, is an expression of how a culture thinks, feels, and acts. But because it is designed specifically to be a part of our everyday existence, it is even more important that it "speak" to us in a language we can understand. Many cities and towns  are making efforts to bring public art back into their communities. If your own community is making such efforts, get involved, let them hear what you, as a member of your community, have to say. You may be exactly who they are waiting to hear from!



Please use Google for your research. (Be sure to click WWW for searches beyond this site.)