ArtSmart Roundtable: Has Public Sculpture Lost Its Edge?

“Cupid’s Span” along the Embarcadero in San Francisco – photo by Xavier de Jauréguiberry

I’m a huge advocate of public art! Free from the museum walls, it engages the public on their terms and in their space. Public art is accessible. Anyone who even vaguely follows the art scene knows that graffiti and murals have been the public art of choice for some time now. Ever since Banksy (and yes, I love his work) made it trendy, graffiti and murals have been the medium of choice to converse with the public…but what about good, old-fashion sculpture?  Has it lost its edge in the popularity boom of graffiti artists?

The Roman Colossus of Constantine at the Musei Capitolini – photo by No Onions Extra Pickles

Whatever the intention, sculpture has long been used to project ideals on the people who view them. The Egyptians use sculpture to immortalize their pharoahs and ensure them a successful trip to the afterlife. The Greeks used their works to celebrate the perfection of human form.  The Roman perfected the political use of sculpture – using it to show the power of their rule.  Michelangelo embodied the humanistic approach of the Renaissance by freeing the figures trapped in the marble slabs he worked with.  Auguste Rodin sculpted fleeting moments of life, in line with what the Impressionists where accomplishing in their paintings.

Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” where it once sat in New York City – photo from Wikipedia

Contemporary sculptures have become a way for cities to show that they are cultured locations, and also have the potential to become an iconic image of the place they represent.  Is any trip to Chicago complete without visiting the Bean?  Though, on occasion sculptures can become the focus of community ire.  Richard Serra’s 1981 sculpture, Tilted Arc, was dismantled less than a decade later, as it was the constant center of complaints by a community who considered it an eyesore and a dividing line across a once open plaza.

One of the San Francisco Hearts in Union Square – photo by Rev Dan Catt

Here in San Francisco, there is not one sculpture that truly represents the city…but we are lucky to a huge variety of small and large public sculptures scattered all over the place.  There are the San Francisco Hearts, which are actioned off every year to help support San Francisco General Hospital.  There is Claus Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Cupid’s Span on the Embarcadero – which I personally dislike enormously, but hey, you can’t like them all!  Just outside of the Moscone Center you’ll find a sculpture by Keith Haring, an artist who through his pop art-style figures was able to engage a public discourse on the AIDS epidemic.  There is something for everyone.

The Keith Haring sculpture outside of the Moscone Center at Third and Howard – photo by Greg Carley

Now back to my original point – has sculpture lost its edge as a public art form?  It’s true that public sculpture is not a spur of the moment art piece like graffiti work can be.  There is lots of planning and negotiations that are involved it creating a sculpture.  But sculpture has a permanent presence that can affect people in a way that a mural painting – which could just be painted over – cannot, whether their response is positive or negative.  Yes, street art is hip and trendy right now…let’s hope it brings an ongoing engagement between the arts and a sector of people who may otherwise never consider themselves someone who likes art.  Sculpture, though, has the history and prominence within art to remain a vital aspect of public art.

As an art historian in-training, it would be awful of me to proclaim that one medium is better than the other.  Watching an older medium compete with a newer one for their space in the realm of public art is, nevertheless, a rather interesting battle.

This post is a part of the very awesome and exciting ArtSmart Roundtable!

This month’s topic: Public Sculpture!

On the last Monday of each month, other arts-oriented travel bloggers and myself will all post articles on the same topic.  Though considering our very different backgrounds and interests, each of this post will uniquely reflect our individual tastes as art-lovers.  Check out the links below to read the rest of this month’s ArtSmart Roundtable contributions:

About the author

Ashley Gardini

Ashley Gardini is an art history educator and freelance cultural writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She's fascinated with the avant-garde, anything by Olafur Eliasson and art tourism. In addition to NOXP, you can find her at Art Nerd San Francisco and the St. Gardini Society.

Follow Ashley on Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter.


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  1. Jeff Titelius

    What a profound and thought-provoking piece my friend. I am so happy that you too revel in the public art form and endeavor to put it into perspective for all of us to appreciate. I am a big fan of the San Francisco hearts and glad to see you included them here…as they serve a vital purpose beyond their form.

  2. Jenna

    Nice discussion, Ashley. I agree that public sculpture is an art form that has served as a way of bringing the community together for centuries and is not going anywhere. I love the examples from San Francisco. I actually have not seen any of them, so I will have to check them out next time I’m there.

  3. ehalvey

    Great piece! I haven’t really connected with a lot of street art, but I’m a big sculpture fan. I guess I like things with a bit more permanence :)

    How many hearts are there? I think I have photos of two from my trips out there.

  4. Kelly

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking article! I love street art because it has a sort of thumb your nose at the establishment guerilla artist feel. Random acts of personal expression. Public sculpture seems more controlled from the get-go, as it’s difficult to put a sculpture up in the dead of night without anyone noticing. (Although, has anyone tried that, because that would be awesome?) And as anything by committee, I imagine its hard for the artist to get his vision executed with naysayers approving every process.

    Regardless, I like both and always am saddened by public outcries against artist I love. Richard Serra is the man, in my opinion. Have any of you ever walked through his torqued ellipses?
    Kelly recently posted..Desktop Calendar: November 2011

  5. Raymond @ Man On The Lam

    While some taxpayers balk at the price of some public sculptures, I think it builds the character of a city. It’s those nice little suprises tucked away sometimes in the most obscure places that make my day.I think it’s still edgy in the sense that it can provoke and insprire discussion. Calgary has several very tall naked scuptures in the downtown core, and people sometimes are still taken aback when they see it for the first time.
    Raymond @ Man On The Lam recently posted..Surprise! This Cave is in Technicolor

  6. Rose

    ArtSmart Roundtable, what an awesome idea, and I love how you’ve channeled the topic into a post about San Francisco! Any particular reason you don’t like Cupid’s Span?

    This all brings to mind the late Jeanne-Claude, who used hundreds of thousands of yards of fabric to “wrap” public spaces, like Central Park in 2005: http://www.christojeanneclaude.net/major_gates.shtml

    Do you think that kind of huge-scale art might have a revival in her absence?? Looking forward to following you and reading more of your posts. :)
    Rose recently posted..An Interview with Tour Guide Alison Merrill – Southwest Specialist!

  7. Leslie

    Great points here…I’ll admit sometimes I see a sculpture or some sort of outdoor art piece and go “really? they just HAD to put this here?” Usually it’s one of those recycled-material things that looks rusty and useless and I can’t figure out what it’s supposed to stand for. But the truth is that regardless of how appealing it is, it’s art in the public eye without giving people a choice of walking into a museum to see it – it’s just THERE. I like that. I think the day we can no longer place art in public spaces outside is going to be a sad one – and hopefully that never happens! I have great memories of the painted armchairs lining Michigan Ave. in Chicago several years ago…

  8. Essie Smyth

    Based on my own opinion, I don’t really think that Public Sculpture Lost Its Edge. I think that everyone has their own style of demonstrating art such as sculpture. It seems that those public sculpture are truly amazing and creative on their own.

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