Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Civic Art

Civic Art

-Jeff Polet

Winston Churchill once remarked that we make our buildings, and then our buildings in turn make us. One difference between good design and bad design is that the former puts us at ease without our even realizing it, while the latter can cause psychic distress. This should especially get our attention when we think about the design of shared spaces. Well-designed public spaces can help support mutual cooperation and good will, while bad design can encourage aggressive behavior. People will want to congregate in well-designed places, and they will avoid badly designed ones. One reason why the streets of New York are unsettling to walk is because the buildings create a giant rat-maze like effect, sending pedestrians scurrying into each other as they scramble to get to their appointed location. The height of the buildings creates a profoundly claustrophobic sensation, resulting in more aggression.

We also populate public spaces with works of art that tell us much about who we think we are and what we aspire to be. They tell our story, and they can help bind citizens together in a shared story.

This essay by C.J. Howard details this nicely.

Civic space and civic art can play a vital role in the stability of societies. We inherently desire beautiful places to inhabit and be inspired by. We also desire doing so in the company of others because we have the common goal of living in a good and just society. A successful civic realm can provide that context for a range of needs. In a physical context of positive togetherness that accommodates socializing, dialogue, and the celebration of beliefs—civility thrives. Recapturing this notion can help us to resolve the societal issues of distance and difference we are facing today. 

Howard’s piece doesn’t attempt to whitewash America’s story, but he does ask us to consider how civic art can tell a truer story, create possibilities of reconciliation, and unite people.

The purpose of civic art is not merely functional but helps fulfill a ritual need that human beings have projected from the beginning of time. A need to transcend the mundane. It is not particularly rational in a worldly sense—but can be likened to our need for love. Love is useless, as is art, when articulated in utilitarian concepts of necessity. Instead art and love are more like gifts that have the ability to fulfill human needs through arresting our attention and adoration, ideally inspiring us as constant reminders to better ourselves and our society. Civic art, while produced by flawed creators and therefore subject to being flawed itself, offers value that we don’t want to throw out with the bathwater. Art, like love, is fertile. Civic sterilization on the other hand, while it may be pragmatic, is inhuman and draconian. 

Howard provides specific examples of how art produced by and about flawed human beings might be profitably recontextualized rather than destroyed. My own suspicion is that some of the iconoclasts destroyed some civic art because they themselves have never made anything that they would hate to see destroyed, and/or they think themselves so above repute that they can’t imagine anyone thinking them immoral. One thing I like about Howard’s essay is that it is essentially a moral vision for civic order, one that celebrates our nation’s virtues as well as acknowledges our flaws.


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