Artwork In Public Spaces
9.1997 – 10.1997
exhibition space: Veletržní palác – National Gallery / public space, Prague
curators: Ludvík Hlaváček, Karolína Fabelová, Kateřina Pavlíčková, Pavla Niklová


Emil Adamec; Barbara Benish; Bezhlavý jezdec; Bohuslav Blažek; Kryštof Blažek; Petr Brožka; Milan Cais; Andrea Cihlářová; David Černý; Michal Dolejš; Michal Doležal; Milena Dopitová; Veronika Drahotová; Michal Gabriel; Lukáš Gavlovský; Kurt Gebauer; Chris Hill; Karel Hlavnička; Robert Hlůže; Petr Janda; Martin Janíček; Zdeněk Jiroušek; Krištof Kintera; Martina Klouzová; Zdena Kolečková; Taro Kondo; Tomáš Kopřiva; Jaroslav Kořán; Thomas Kotik; Alena Kotzmannová; Petr Kožíšek; Aleš Kuneš; KW; Adéla Matasová; Milan Mikuláštík; Jindřich Mlynařík; Petr Pavlík; Tomáš Polcar; Ester Polcarová; Jiří Příhoda; Pavel Reisenauer; Ester Řádová; Milan Salák; Michal Sedlák; Julie Schulzová; Silver; Skrytá tvůrčí Jednotka; Zuzana Štemberová; Roman Ťalský; Claudia Tennyson; Libor Teplý; Margita Titlová; Veronika Tomanová; Marek Topič; Roman Trabura; Viktor Třebický; Marcel Turič; Markéta Vaňková; Martin Zet; Petr Zinke 


Public Art

The translation of the English term "public art" into Czech as "verejne umeni" is slavish. A slavish translation is a bad one since it does not take the term´s particular context into consideration. What then if the term does not have a context in the second language or if in reality there is no corresponding activity, which may be described by another term. Could not then such a neologism, strange and unfamiliar to the native´s ear, provocatively inspire the creation of a local context and consequently perhaps the creation of a more appropriate native term? Why, to date, has there not emerged a trend similar to the one in western states, which gave birth to "public art" in the sixties and, from the eighties onwards, developed into a wide-ranging flow of artistic initiative in various fields of social activity?1 The fault does not seem to lie with the local art scene as it has in its own way reflected the social ideals of pop art and conceptual art starting in the sixties, as well as the postmodern tendencies of the eighties. Rather, the problem lies in the political environment of the past, that hindered the public from expanding through active control of communal affairs.

The free expression of public opinion was the only thing that could threaten the communist regime and it was therefore the subject of concentrated and persevering political repression. Artistic production as such was not under the control of the government, but its influence on the public was. In this way art was forced into the restrictive borders of an intellectual ghetto. The public itself was initially bound together by the artificial ideology of collectivism but later, at the end of the fifties and especially in the seventies, it was shattered when the communists began to bind individuals by handing them limited portions of power. Consequently, in the communist era the concept of "public" was infused with the rather negative meaning of egoism, cowardliness, utilitarianism and other similar qualities people subscribed to in order to survive. Thus there was a considerable gulf between art and the public, not unlike the era of classical avantgarde before World War Two.

Surprisingly, not even after the Velvet Revolution, did those two poles approach each other. Art in this country, traditionally very individualistic and spiritual,2 is still neither in the attention of the general public nor of the government or other official authorities. Though the interest of the media has slightly increased, art still plays only a small part in the main body of pre-occupations whose nature is predominantly economic. No educational programs exist that could raise awareness of artistic production to the public, no cultural policy exists,3 and no tax laws exist that would encourage private support of culture and the arts. With the fall of communism our understanding of the concept of "public" also changed in an astonishing way. To our great surprise every-day life has been transformed in a complicated way. It has become "real" in a similar way to when somebody matures or when they are released from a psychiatric institution and their concrete decisions actually start to "count". But at the same time, under the pressure of that newly discovered reality brought on by the emerging market, our life has been narrowed down to the anxious pursuit of the one way to immediately profit, a pursuit that is painfully "real".

Our concept of freedom is necessarily turning into a concept of freedom based on commercial competition. The complexity of human thinking and the wide scale of possibilities of human thought, not motivated by the attainment of an immediate result in the world of economic competition, are thus becoming a dispensable luxury article. The complex character of human life, its variety, its color, its unpredictability and mystery is in this sense disappearing. Disappearing is the question and the inquisitive look around, disappearing is the interest in seeing our human situation and, consequently, the interest in art and its possible role in society. So what is the role of art in society? Art is neither able to fight for its role nor able to define it.4 This is understandable since art can avail itself from the complexity of the human spirit, reason, feeling and will, but it cannot avail itself from feedback, verification, or an objective means of measure. Art can express ideals of society precisely, but it cannot constitute those ideals or secure them5. The complex character of art is a product of its deeply personal character. An artist works on the level of personal sensation, the abundance of immediate experience and his understanding of the inherent meaning of things. A work of art is created by unique individuality and it conserves the features of unique individuality in itself.

Art that is founded on individuality to such an extent in essence does not have any contact points with the public sphere, which in contrast is constituted by social reflection and objective language and which necessarily is abstracted from unique individuality.6 In the modern historical period, which is not defined by any common and universal idea7 but by the idea of democratic equality of all individuals, art cannot practically be free and public at the same time.8 Art and the public sphere are basically contradictory in nature yet their immediate goals and their roots are inseparably entangled. All that surrounds us is the product of a complex social cooperation. The awareness of our dependency on others is part of each person´s self-consciousness. All works of art are messengers, that is, a means of communication with society. Individual and social positions in art have recently approached each other, also influenced by the character of imminent developments in art. In the spirit of the social position, contemporary art has even more radically abandoned the production of artefacts as models of unique situations of experience and is concentrating on the reflection of a formal order in relationships in the context of the endlessly complicated structure of cooperation in society.9

Equally, the particular experience of the last decade has shown us, that a relationship between personal artistic expression and the public sphere really exists. As indicated above, art can only exist without the public, as was the case in our region under communism, provisionally and temporarily. Only in the belief that the unjust state would be temporary, could art live in the ghetto out of the reach of and against public opinion. If this state of isolating the arts and the public was permanent it would lead to a deep disillusion with the future of humankind. On the other hand, the contemporary post-revolutionary experience may convince us that not even the public can ignore the position of artists, or indeed all activities that do not directly serve an economic end. In the course of the twentieth century the language of art has developed into a very specific and incomprehensible code of denomination. The quality of a piece of art is quite a complicated matter, even for somebody who is used to reading its language and so without question the criticism of quality is very divergent. Nevertheless, the so-called artistic quality of a piece is an expression of an honest endeavor as it is in every other human activity. Paintings of poor quality that appear on the walls of some officials´ offices are unfortunately a reflection of the quality of the institution.

The global trend of recent years towards reducing the support for the arts to a minimum, will hopefully result in the abandoning of all illusions and ideological assumptions. It should also uncover the real needs of society, which are to invest in the freedom of the human spirit and in the development of mental activities. These do not lead to a quick profit, but they create a human atmosphere we can live in and an environment which opens to us the richness and mystery of life. It seems that the contemporary world has to make progress in two apparently contradicting fields: the practical system of ensuring the reproduction of society and the freedom of the individual to be one. Only communicated personal experience can give society depth and a broad mental horizon. Society can only be created with the togetherness of human beings.

Public art is the place where both of those contradictory fields meet. It is becoming clear that such an encounter must not necessarily be a compromise. The artist does not have to compromise the perseverance of his personal experience, he only has to keep his real social viewpoint in mind (the real not to be confused with the ideal one). The spectator does not have to become an art expert, he only has to accept the fact that the meaning of a work cannot be found on the surface, as is the case with advertisement or the weather news, but that it demands a closer look. The exhibition "Artwork in Public Spaces" introduces forty-five art projects -- attempts at such an encounter. This model of art projects and theories hopes to attract artists, theorists, institutions and possible sponsors alike and to spur their interest in developing an abundance of activity in this field.

Ludvik Hlavacek
Director of SCCA, Prague

(translated by Marketa Dolezel)



  1. See Suzan A. Snodgrass: "The Public / Private Dynamic in Chicago Art", contributions to the Internet discussion and the bibliography.
  2. See Michal Kolecek: "The Social Context in Art".
  3. The former Minister of Culture of the Czech Republic and the director of the Academy of Fine Arts (AVU) in Prague have recently come to agree in a television dis-cussion that the concept of "cultural policy" is nonsense.
  4. Yet the intangible social benefits of art still have to be clearly defined. In what way does culture improve the quality of American life? Dale McConathy in: Public art, Public Controversy-The Tilted Arc on Trial, ACA Books, New York 1987.
  5. On the contrary, where it attempts to do this it causes itself to be abused. This leads to the so-called aesthetization of politics, which means that demagogical effect-seeking and calculated aestethic ideals replace a justified political decision.
  6. See Bohuslav Blazek: "The Fine Arts and Public Places".
  7. As is found, for example, in universal myths of antique Greece, the Christian ideology as it was in medieval times, or in the hierarchy of feudal society as in the era of European Baroque etc.
  8. Where art was made public in the twentieth century, i.e. made valid on a higher level than the individual one, it happened as a result of political force. I am referring here to Nazism and Communism.
  9. See Katerina Pavlickova "On Context and Meaning"

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