Public Art and Urban Life

Venustas – or loveliness, charm, attractiveness, beauty – is one of Vitruvius’s three principles of good architecture, along with firmitas or durability and utilitas or utility. I define venustas as delight. When it comes to the way our cities our built, especially infrastructure like roads, highways, sidewalks, bus stations, train stations, canals, and transfer stations, we don’t really even think of venustas. Mostly, those things are all about firmitas and utilitas, with an emphasis on the latter. This basic infrastructure makes up so much of our visual and experiential landscape in our everyday lives that it has a profound impact on us we don’t even realize. If you live in the city, or even the suburbs, or heck, even out in the country, chances are, you are going to find yourself on a road, highway, or sidewalk. When all you see day in and day out is a bunch of concrete and asphalt, it can get you down and make you feel as if we live in a purely mechanistic world with no beauty and delight. This is why it’s so important to interject nature into cities, by way of street trees, parks, plants, flower boxes, bioswales and a number of other strategies. Nature reminds us of our own humanity and it infuses our man-made world with a transcendent aspect that makes life worth living. In addition to nature, there is another way that we can invoke that transcendent aspect of life and that is public art.

The Unifying Power of Public Art

A lot of us think of art as something you see in an art museum or an art gallery. And often it is, but art can take many forms, including public sculptures, etchings on the ground, and murals on the walls. Not everyone can afford to own great art, but that doesn’t mean that everyone couldn’t use a little art in their lives. That’s why public art is such a wonderful amenity! It is brings art to everyone, regardless of income, race, location, preferences or any of the things that tend to separate us.

A Reminder of what is Divine in Us

As I walked out of the train onto the Osborn Station platform in Phoenix when I was visiting a few weeks ago, I noticed on the floor etchings of people’s footprints. This tiny gesture turned my furrowed brow into a smooth one and turned the corners of my mouth from a worried frown into a delighted smile. It’s so easy to get run down by the daily grind and the little road bumps we face on a regular basis that we sometimes need a little something to jar us awake from our fog of worries. Sometimes a passing butterfly can do it, or a hummingbird sighting or seeing a bright and colorful flower. Public art can do it too! Seeing art in our everyday surroundings is a reminder of what is divine in us. It reminds us that not everything is utilitarian and practical and something to “get through” but that life is also magical and wondrous and mysterious and divine.

Slowing down

Cities tend to put us into overdrive. We are always hustling from one spot to another, rushing from a meeting in downtown to an event in uptown to happy hour in midtown. The constant drumbeat of cars whizzing by, the unforgiving nature of our urban roads and the dearth of public spaces where one can just relax puts you on the move at all times when you’re out in the public realm. Public art can serve to slow this go go go pace down to a pace that is more human. In fact, some public art is so subtle you wouldn’t even notice it if you were going at too fast a pace. You can’t take delight in your surroundings unless you are present and public art can slow you down enough to where you can be present!

Why are we wasting our hard-earned tax dollars on public art?

Public art has its detractors because it’s made possible with public funding. A lot of people are ok with their tax dollars going towards building and repairing roads and other necessary infrastructure that makes modern life possible, but they are definitely NOT ok with their hard-earned dollars going to something as frivolous as public art. But public art is absolutely necessary for society’s well being. Interjecting beauty and delight into our built-environment isn’t a frivolous indulgence, but is an absolute necessity. Art connects us to the bigger picture and lifts us from the mire of our problems, whether they are big or small, if only just for a moment. For this reason, public art is a part of public health. And this is why I love percent for art programs in cities nationwide. Percent for art programs allot one percent of capital improvement funds to public art, so that tax payers don’t feel as if they are paying extra for public art. Just as infrastructure is essential to the smooth functioning of our cities, public art is essential for the well being of the people who live there, and percent for the arts reflects this value.

Photo Credit: Public art by Thomas Sayre at the Osborn/Central Light Rail Station.  Photo by David Bickford.