March 2018

Critical Perspectives on Public Art & Innovation

Facilitating bottom-up urban innovation through public art

This paper reviews literature on public art. In the first part, it examines critical perspectives through a widely used categorization of public art as either large-scale reductionist projects or small-scale community-led initiatives. The paper then looks at methods for evaluating public art, followed by a discussion about the potential of public art to facilitate urban innovation.

Art has a long-standing historical relationship with the city, particularly in the form of arts patronage, architecture, monumental objects, and in more recent times through public art initiatives. Public art is in some ways antithetical to a modernist aesthetic epitomized by hermetic spaces of galleries where art is perceived as something autonomous, apolitical and neutral (Gablik, 1995; Hall & Robertson 2001; Miles, 1997). Public art, on the other hand, is inherently social and purposeful.

Traditionally, art in a public realm was used as means of aesthetic enhancement, or memorialization (Hall, 2003/2004). However, since the early 1980s cultural modes of tackling structural issues of cities were gaining prominence and public art was increasingly seen as an essential component of material relations and reproduction of society. The institutional recognition that art has a social agenda lead to the creation of ‘percent-of-art’ policies and more art being funded by the public sector (Gablik, 1995; Hall & Robertson, 2001). Advocates of this cultural approach argue that public art contributes to the alleviation of environmental, social and economic problems locating it firmly within the process of urban regeneration (Hall, 2003/2004).

Alongside the formalization of public art a prominent strand of urban studies literature emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s arguing that “culture was being deployed in a commodified and sanitised form in cities to create the impression of affluence, vibrancy, conviviality, change and regeneration, while at the same time being used to mask the increasingly fractured and polarised social and economic realities that characterised life for the majority of urban dwellers” (Hall, 2003/2004, p. 111). This critical perspective of public art is the focus of the work presented here.

This paper looks at critical literature related to public art as a means of urban regeneration and innovation in the late 20th and the onset of the 21st century. It first explores the theoretical underpinnings of public art’s critique, followed by an examination of methods for studying art in an urban context. The paper then discusses a potential of art to contribute to the process of urban innovation and positions public art in a broader urban research framework.

Critical theory of public art

Institutionalized form of public art gained prominence in the 20th century as a discipline with no precise definitions, no constructive theory and without coherent objectives (Phillips, 1989/2004). Advocates of public art often base their claims on fuzzy concepts such as place, nature, community, or identity which are hard to define in universal terms (Hall & Robertson, 2001). Due to its multifaceted, intangible and fluid character, any attempt to theorize public art is an inherently tentative and speculative enterprise, as is apparent throughout this section.

Surprisingly little attention in the literature is devoted to the notion of what comprises ‘public’ in the phrase ‘public art’. Phillips (1989/2004) refers to an ideal of the common, exemplified with a reference to public and civic space in early cities in the US, as a site that represents the concept and the enactment of a democratic process. This public area “was the forum where information was shared and public debate occurred: a charged, dynamic coalescence. The common was not a place of absolute conformity, predictability, or acquiescence, but of spirited disagreement, of conflict, of only modest compromises – and of controversy“ (p. 195).

Extending this notion of the common, it becomes clear that the installation of public art within urban fabric is inevitably a political exercise (Sharp, Pollock, & Paddison, 2005). Public art thus manifests itself both as a physical object or process embedded in the city’s structure and as tacit imagery in the minds of citizens. According to Phillips (2003) public art “balances at the boundaries, occupying the inchoate spaces between public and private, architecture and art, object and environment, process and production, performance and installation” (Phillips, 2003, p. 122). Bianchini and Ghilardi (2007) use the term ‘urban mindscape’ as a structure for thinking about a place to express a similar sentiment, indicating something that “exists between the physical landscape of a city and people’s visual and cultural perceptions of it” (p. 281).

Given its capacity to shape the social life of the city, public art has become a staple component in formulating urban policy. According to Policy Study Institute (1994), public art can accrue benefits such as: contributing to local distinctiveness, attracting companies and investment; having a role in cultural tourism; adding to land values; creating employment; increasing the use of open spaces; reducing wear and tear on buildings and lowering levels of vandalism.

With a distinctive economic focus public art administrators operate “in a kind of hybrid space, a web made up of legal concerns, branding, mission, public perception, and the formidable public sector–private sector divide” (Regan, 2017, p. 82). As competition for public space grows, “public art policies have become calcified and increasingly bureaucratic” (Baca, 1995, p. 136). As a result, ‘The Public Art Machine’ produces bland, unprovocative art that fails to critically intervene in the process of urban development (Hall & Robertson, 2001; Phillips, 1989/2004). Public art projects often fail, perhaps paradoxically, because of the heterogeneity of civic life they attempt to recognize and reflect in an attempt to cater to everyone (Phillips, 2003).

The way public art is procured and produced relies upon “naturalization of the city as a transhistorical form, propagating essentialist myth of good, even ideal, city form” (Hall & Roberston, 2001, p. 21). This technocratic view of the city sees social problems as something to be managed by the provision of facilities and amenities. From this perspective, public art is supposed to provide universal solutions which are inevitably contingent upon partial readings by their producers and are in conflict with a notion of places as “permeable, both bounded and unbounded, local and global, contested, mutable and socially contingent […] and not reducible to universal essences” (Hall & Robertson, 2001, p. 19).

To more easily identify culprits in the production of public art, several authors apply a broad typology to distinguish between large flagship regeneration projects and small-scale community regeneration projects.

Flagship regeneration projects are characterized by large budgets drawn from ‘percent-of-art’ policies, by significant involvement of private development companies and often contain prominent work of famous artists (Hall, 2003/2004; Hall & Robertson, 2001). These prestige projects facilitate “culturally sensitive place branding and marketing” (Bianchini, 2007, p. 281) and have a significant promotional function, providing ‘cover shots’ for media as part of a global inter-urban competition for investment and jobs (Loftman & Nevin, 2003). Such projects are “fundamentally more interested in capital investment or maintaining social order than with improving the lives of residents of a city” (Sharp, Pollock, & Paddison, 2005, p. 1014).

The capital-intensive large-scale regeneration projects have drawn criticism relating to art’s endorsement of environmentally damaging and socially exclusive development based on essentialist notions of urban issues and elitist language or art and politics (Miles, 1997; Sharp, Pollock, & Paddison, 2005). Many of flagship projects are reminiscent of historical monumentalist production of public art in the service of dominance and endorsement of ‘official’ views of the city, chiefly those of local authorities and commercial developers (Hall, 2003/2004).

These monumental structures are produced within a dominant framework of values, publicly representing selective versions of history and beliefs about the order of the world (Duncan, 2000; Hall, 2003/2004; Miles, 1997). They displace values into an aesthetic domain “allowing the impact of power or money on everyday life to be unquestioned” (Miles, 1997, p. 58) and persuading us of the “justice of the acts they represent” by inspiring “a sense of awe by their scale and the importance of the artist” (Baca, 1995, p. 132).

Corporate patronage of public art is another often criticized aspect of prestige regeneration projects which have become “one of the mechanisms by which corporate finance is able to inscribe difference and exclusion into the urban landscape by lending these spaces auras of distinction and exclusivity” (Hall & Robertson, 2001, p. 20). In such context, public art has become complicit in, rather than critical of, exclusive uneven urban development and gentrification (Hall & Robertson, 2001; Miles, 1997).

Second widely-recognized category of public art regeneration projects is comprised of small-scale community projects. These projects are characterized by lower budgets and originate from local government, volunteers and social activists. Community public art projects propagate broader advocacy of the cultural, rather than purely property-led or economic approaches to urban regeneration. From this perspective, art is seen as a critical public catalyst that can help communities understand their problems and facilitate their solutions - here artists are seen not just as suppliers of objects but also as problem solvers (Hall & Robertson, 2001; Phillips, 1989/2004).

Provocative public art presents a particularly potent method for re-semanticizing or subverting dominant meanings of space or buildings by shocking citizens into a “more conscious relationship with urban space” (Cresswell, 1998, p. 276) and “questioning accepted versions of history, illuminating hidden functions of public institutions and disturbing preconceptions about systems that govern public life” (Hall & Robertson, 2001, p. 17). Dery (2010) has coined the term ‘guerrilla semiotics’ to describe these subversive low-cost forms of public art that “draw attention to the power and meanings inscribed into the urban environment” (Sharp, Pollock, & Paddison, 2005, p. 1015).

Graffiti and ‘culture jamming’ (the addition of slogans to billboards and advertising to subvert the intended message) are giving a voice to those who lack the means and capital to legitimately write up their messages onto the urban landscape, turning the one-way communication of advertising into an interchange of ideas and images (Cresswell, 1998; Luna, 1995; Sharp, Pollock, & Paddison, 2005). Several authors reference the work of a Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko and his projections onto monuments which abolish the familiar and expose the underlying symbolism of the piece of public art. Miles (1997) calls this type of public art ‘anti-monuments’.

Methods for evaluating public art

There is no comprehensive critical framework for evaluating claims of public art proponents and empirical tools for measuring the impact of public art initiatives are also absent (Hall & Robertson, 2001). Existing critical paradigms - semiotic and productionist - focus on art objects and their production processes rather than on the public perception of art.

Majority of critical writing on public art is based on cultural studies and cultural geography that derive their theoretical sophistication from applying the Lefebvrian framework of analysis (Hall, 2003/2004). These methods use semiotic deconstruction to uncover symbolic meaning inherent in public art projects, and the context within which this art is produced, however, they have little to say about the public. This poses a significant research challenge since urban meaning is not immanent to architectural form and space, but changes according to the social interaction of city dwellers (Hall, 2004/2003). From this perspective “neither the intentions of the producers of public art, nor its iconographies necessarily correspond to the meanings derived from the incorporation of public art into the experiences of the public’s everyday lives” (Hall, 2003/2004, p. 113).

Other more traditional methodological tools for the analysis of public art include surveys, focus groups, workshops, semi-structured and in-depth interviews with individuals and groups, case studies, recorded opinions, reading of social histories and reports of industrial and economic change in the city (Hall, 2003/2004; Policy Study Institute, 1994). T here is a consensus among public art’s critics that the field would benefit from developing more inclusive and comprehensive methods of analysis based on “integrative modes of thinking that focus on the relational nature of reality rather than on discrete objects“ (Gablik, 1995, p. 83). These novel methods are inspired by more established fields such as geography, social sciences and other studies of urban spaces and incorporate ethnographic observation and visual methodologies for analysis of popular visual knowledges of public art (Sharp, Pollock, & Paddison, 2005).

Public art and innovation

The potential to engage citizens and provoke a more thoughtful (rather than unconscious) and critical stance towards the city is public art’s principal means of supporting urban innovation (Cresswell, 1998). Community participation in the production of public art fosters a sense of ownership and helps tackle social exclusion by providing stimulus and interest for alienated people (Hall & Robertson, 2001). This form o public art aims to produce social processes rather than objects (Miles, 1997). For example, temporary event-based projects that celebrate street life such as festivals, carnivals, street theatre, and street music provide “means to articulate the implicit values of a city when its users occupy the place of determining what the city is” (Miles, 1997, p. 59).

For facilitation of such forms of community innovation to be successful, the language of public art needs to loose the ‘art gaze’ and become more inclusive, particularly language as it is used by public art producers administrators. Senie (2003) argues that terms like ‘site-specific’ are loaded with theoretical baggage and are incompatible with the ever-changing urban landscape. She suggests that we instead strive for ‘site-responsive’ public art which has a capacity for an ongoing evolving relationship with its neighborhood (Senie, 2003).

The overreaching aim of contemporary public art in the context of innovation is to move away from the radical individualism of modernist aesthetic where the role of the audience is that of a detached spectator-observer. Gablik (1995) proposes ‘connective aesthetics’ as an alternative conceptualization that sees human nature as deeply embedded in the world and “makes art into a model for connectedness and healing by opening up being to its full dimensionality – not just disembodied eye“ (p. 86).

For such a shift to occur, public art needs to be viewed as an integral component of a broader urban development strategy. As outlined earlier, the flagship regeneration projects position public art squarely in economic and planning disciplines, while a community small-scale regeneration projects are closer to the fields of justice and psychological well being. The former receives most of the funding and attention, but a collective shift in attitudes and resources towards the later is the key to unlocking the untapped potential of public art to foster innovation and citizen well being.


This paper has first examined the critical perspectives and methods of public art as means of urban regeneration. It has then polemicized on the potential of public art to foster innovation and argued for the development of more inclusive community-oriented methods for production and procurement of public art. Here it seems appropriate to ask whether we are perhaps expecting too much from art? There is “widespread and uncritical acceptance, particularly among its commissioners, that putting art in the public realm is inherently a good thing” (Hall & Robertson, 2001, p. 18). However, public art is not a substitute for urban renewal or social workers. Its capacity to foster inclusion and innovation is mostly limited to symbolic, rather than material, needs of citizens (Sharp, Pollock, & Paddison, 2005). Therefore, when public art is being conceived, it is necessary to view it not in isolation, but as a tool and catalyst for social and political change in the broader context of other disciplines engaged in urban research.


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APA-style reference

Panic, I. A. (2018). Critical Perspectives on Public Art & Innovation. Retrieved June 21 2022, from

Written, designed and developed by Ilja Panić