We are immersed in a sea of art. When we go out our senses are assailed by images from signs and billboards, carefully crafted to provoke cognitive and affective responses in us. From loudspeakers or earbuds we receive a constant stream of music and literature. Many of the things we buy are sculpted to appeal to our aesthetic senses. Enormous sums are spent to provide this art to us at no charge.
Art has always intended to alter the way we think, and this tsunami of art is intended to alter the way we buy. The message conveyed by each piece is remarkably similar: buy this, eat that, wear those, vote for me! Underlying all these cries is a single shrill command, which can be expressed (as populist artist Shepard Fairey has pointed out) in a single word: Obey!
As these commercial waves break over us, we cringe if we react at all. We try to ignore them altogether, but the content of this public art is designed to deny us the ability to shut it out: impossibly nubile women, unbearably lovable children and pets, incredibly luscious-looking food. Sometimes we encounter art in public space which has no commercial message. When we do, our reactions may be completely different.
“Images that are in public space that aren’t advertising reawaken a sense of wonder,” Fairey has said. I have no question that this is so, and that it has been so since the dawn of man. The paleolithic paintings on the walls of the Chauvet Cave in southern France illuminate the space with exactly that sense of wonder. Images of divinities and generals have inspired worshipers and soldiers from ancient Sparta and the Ch’in dynasty right down to the present day. Commissioned public artworks, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the kinetic sculptures of Alexander Calder, have stirred that same wonder, as have many uncommissioned works, from balloon-letter graffiti to the work of more gifted and disciplined artists, like Fairey and Banksy.
Public art with a commercial intent causes us to contract, be tense and defensive, resisting the command to obey. Public art with political intent invokes our sense of history and pride of citizenship, especially in times of war. Public art with religious intent can invite the better angels of our nature or, unfortunately, provoke our baser bigotries. Public art with no apparent purpose can cause us to pause and think, relaxing and expanding ourselves, becoming receptive to new ideas and feelings.