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Art for all

A whistle-stop exploration of the development of post-war public art in the UK – and why it’s so important 

 

Words: Joanna Cummings 

Public art has existed as long as there have been human beings – from the reliefs of Ancient Greece to the diverse textiles of Africa – but for societies in the West, public art really took off following the Second World War. The disruption and societal shifts caused by the two world wars led to a significant change in attitudes and artistic philosophies, as well as in urban planning, laying the foundation for the diverse and dynamic field of public art we know today.  

So what is ‘public art’? It refers to any form of visual art that is created to be experienced in public spaces, whether that be sculptures, murals, installations, memorials or interactive pieces. The aims of public art can be to engage communities, provoke thought, to educate or to contribute to the cultural identity of a place – think of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, which represented the industrial history of its local area, Gateshead in Tyne and Wear.  

In the 1950s and 1960s, public artworks began to be commissioned as part of urban renewal programmes, and murals and sculptures became an increasingly important part of city planning. After the Cold War, cultural exchange programmes became a tool for diplomacy – see, for example, the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, which attracted more than three million visitors.  

Public art became more culturally diverse in the 1970s, and artists began to explore the use of unconventional materials, themes and cultural influences. The rise of political activism and changes in legislation saw artworks develop in response to the civil rights movement – such as the Wall of Respect, the first large-scale outdoor community mural depicting heroes of African-American History – as well as changing attitudes to gender issues and a growing awareness of environmental concerns. Graffiti and street art began to be more prevalent, as artists used community settings as their canvas – something that can still be seen on subways in major cities, and, for example, in Bristol, where diverse and thought-provoking street art is a major tourist attraction. 

The 1980s and 1990s saw further evolution in public art, thanks in part to the increasing development of public art programmes. In some cases, art was even integrated into the design of public spaces, with artists encouraged to develop pieces that spoke to and for the diverse communities in which they were based. A powerful example of this is the AIDS Memorial Quilt, based in San Francisco, which aimed to address social stigma associated with HIV and AIDS. 

From the 1990s onwards, temporary installations and performance art became more common, inspired in part by developments in technology and new media. This developed even further in the 2000s, which saw more integration of digital and sound-based elements into public art. Artist Jenny Holzer became known for her light projections, which were displayed across UK landmarks to highlight the climate crisis; in 2012, artist and composer Christopher Janney created the Harmonic Convergence installation in Miami International Airport, which created a ‘sonic portrait’ of the environment by playing different sounds depending on the number of people walking across it.

Significantly, public art also plays a key role in shaping and reinforcing collective memory – particularly in representing poignant or traumatic moments in our history. In 2014, two artists filled the Tower of London’s moat with almost 900,000 ceramic poppies to commemorate First World War fatalities. The installations at Ground Zero in New York honour all the people who lost their lives in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  

All these examples show how impactful and important public art can be. Good public art goes beyond aesthetic appeal – it can help maintain cultural heritage, foster community identity, promote diversity, support economic development and tourism and ensure we can keep talking about the events and topics that impact us all. 

 

How the Angel took flight  

A visual diary of the making of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North. Discover some fascinating facts about this pioneering piece of public art here.

Art for all

A whistle-stop exploration of the development of post-war public art in the UK – and why it’s so important 

 

Words: Joanna Cummings 

Public art has existed as long as there have been human beings – from the reliefs of Ancient Greece to the diverse textiles of Africa – but for societies in the West, public art really took off following the Second World War. The disruption and societal shifts caused by the two world wars led to a significant change in attitudes and artistic philosophies, as well as in urban planning, laying the foundation for the diverse and dynamic field of public art we know today.  

So what is ‘public art’? It refers to any form of visual art that is created to be experienced in public spaces, whether that be sculptures, murals, installations, memorials or interactive pieces. The aims of public art can be to engage communities, provoke thought, to educate or to contribute to the cultural identity of a place – think of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, which represented the industrial history of its local area, Gateshead in Tyne and Wear.  

In the 1950s and 1960s, public artworks began to be commissioned as part of urban renewal programmes, and murals and sculptures became an increasingly important part of city planning. After the Cold War, cultural exchange programmes became a tool for diplomacy – see, for example, the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, which attracted more than three million visitors.  

Public art became more culturally diverse in the 1970s, and artists began to explore the use of unconventional materials, themes and cultural influences. The rise of political activism and changes in legislation saw artworks develop in response to the civil rights movement – such as the Wall of Respect, the first large-scale outdoor community mural depicting heroes of African-American History – as well as changing attitudes to gender issues and a growing awareness of environmental concerns. Graffiti and street art began to be more prevalent, as artists used community settings as their canvas – something that can still be seen on subways in major cities, and, for example, in Bristol, where diverse and thought-provoking street art is a major tourist attraction. 

The 1980s and 1990s saw further evolution in public art, thanks in part to the increasing development of public art programmes. In some cases, art was even integrated into the design of public spaces, with artists encouraged to develop pieces that spoke to and for the diverse communities in which they were based. A powerful example of this is the AIDS Memorial Quilt, based in San Francisco, which aimed to address social stigma associated with HIV and AIDS. 

From the 1990s onwards, temporary installations and performance art became more common, inspired in part by developments in technology and new media. This developed even further in the 2000s, which saw more integration of digital and sound-based elements into public art. Artist Jenny Holzer became known for her light projections, which were displayed across UK landmarks to highlight the climate crisis; in 2012, artist and composer Christopher Janney created the Harmonic Convergence installation in Miami International Airport, which created a ‘sonic portrait’ of the environment by playing different sounds depending on the number of people walking across it.

Significantly, public art also plays a key role in shaping and reinforcing collective memory – particularly in representing poignant or traumatic moments in our history. In 2014, two artists filled the Tower of London’s moat with almost 900,000 ceramic poppies to commemorate First World War fatalities. The installations at Ground Zero in New York honour all the people who lost their lives in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  

All these examples show how impactful and important public art can be. Good public art goes beyond aesthetic appeal – it can help maintain cultural heritage, foster community identity, promote diversity, support economic development and tourism and ensure we can keep talking about the events and topics that impact us all. 

 

How the Angel took flight  

A visual diary of the making of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North. Discover some fascinating facts about this pioneering piece of public art here.

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